Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
Alice Munro’s short story “Soon” first appeared in the New Yorker in 2004 and later appeared in her collection of short stories “Runaway” as the book’s third story. “Soon,” which works as a stand-alone story, is also the second part of a three-part story sequence that includes “Chance,” and “Silence.”
The first part of the story sequence, “Chance,” explores the journey of the central character, Juliet, on her way to live with a man named Eric at Whale Bay, on the west coast of Canada. The story is known for Munro’s movement in time, as well as as the slow development of the character of Juliet.
In this second story, “Soon,” we follow Juliet as she leaves Whale Bay to return to Ontario to visit her parents.
Read “Soon” at the New Yorker website.
Buy the book “Runaway” online (in addition to “Soon,” this collection of short stories also includes “Silence,” a story we will be looking at, so if this book isn’t yet on your bookshelf, now might be the time!)
Craft Lecture: “Reading As a Writer”
Note: there are many, many writing exercises suggested in this close reading of “Soon,” designed to put into practice the story’s craft techniques. There are too many to do all–pick and choose the ones that appeal to you as practice exercises.
“A story is not like a road to follow […] It’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows […] You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It has also a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.” ~Alice Munro
Note: please don’t even think about looking at these notes before you’ve read “Soon” at least twice! “Soon” is a master class in creative writing, and the more you’re familiar with the plot, characters, and overall movement of the story, the more the craft techniques come through.
Two profiles face each other. One, a pure-white heifer, with a particularly mild and tender expression, the other a green-faced man who is neither young nor old. He seems to be a minor official, maybe a postman—he wears that sort of cap. His lips are pale; the white of his visible eye is shining. A hand that is probably his offers up, from the lower margin of the painting, a little tree or an exuberant branch, fruited with jewels.
At the upper margin of the painting are dark clouds, and underneath them some small lottery houses and a toy church with its toy cross, perched on the curved surface of the earth. Within this curve a small man (drawn to a larger scale, however, than the buildings) walks along purposefully with a scythe on his shoulder, and a woman seems to wait for him. But she is hanging upside down.
There are other things as well. For instance, a girl milking a cow, within the heifer’s cheek.
Juliet decided at once to buy this print, as a Christmas present for her parents. “Because it reminds me of them,” she told Christa, who had come down with her, from Whale Bay, to do some shopping. They were in the gift shop of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Christa laughed. “The green man and the cow? They’ll be flattered.”
Christa never took anything seriously at first; she always had to make a joke about it. Juliet wasn’t bothered. Three months pregnant, she was suddenly free of nausea, and, for that reason or some other, she was subject to fits of euphoria. She thought of food all the time, and hadn’t even wanted to come into the gift shop, because she had spotted a lunchroom.
“I mean, it makes me think of their life,” Juliet said. “I don’t know why, but it does.”
She loved everything in the painting, but particularly the little figures and rickety buildings at the top of it. The man with the scythe and the woman hanging upside down.
She looked for the title. “I and the Village.”
It made exquisite sense.
The hallmark of Alice Munro’s style–moving around in place and time to explore character–places us in a seemingly strange opening for a story set in Ontario. We’re in British Columbia, and two friends are discussing a painting. Later on in the story, we’ll come to understand that Juliet’s parents have hidden this painting, instead of displaying it. But for right now, we’re merely looking at the painting, and learning about Juliet and Christa.
Writing exercise: take an existing short story that you’ve written in chronological fashion, select a scene from it, and move that scene to the beginning of the story.
“Chagall. I like Chagall,” Christa said. “Picasso was a bastard. Didn’t he say, ‘Chagall is for shopgirls’? So what’s wrong with shopgirls? Chagall should have said, ‘Picasso is for people with funny faces.’ ”
Juliet had already told Christa some things about her parents—how they lived in a curious but not unhappy isolation, though her father, Sam, was a popular schoolteacher. They were cut off partly by her mother Sara’s heart trouble but also by the fact that they subscribed to magazines that nobody around them read, listened to programs on the national radio network that nobody around them listened to. By Sara’s making her own clothes—sometimes ineptly—from Vogue patterns, instead of Butterick. Even by the way they preserved some impression of youth instead of thickening and slouching, like the parents of Juliet’s schoolfellows.
When her daughter, Penelope, was thirteen months old, Juliet flew with her to Toronto, then caught the train. This was in 1969. She got off in a town that was twenty miles away from the town where she had grown up, and where her parents still lived. Apparently the train did not stop there anymore.
We then transition from the purchase of the painting, and the relationship between Juliet and Christa, to Ontario. Notice also, the discursive summary paragraph (the one directly above) that gets us moved from British Columbia to Ontario. Four direct sentences that place us in time, space, and movement.
Writing exercise: write four sentences that place your character in a specific time, place, and sequence of movement. Is this the very beginning, or does it take place after an opening scene? Why?
She was disappointed to get off at this unfamiliar station and not to see reappear, at once, the trees and sidewalks and houses she remembered—among them her own house, spacious but plain, no doubt with the same blistering and shabby white paint, behind its bountiful soft maple tree.
Sam and Sara, here in this town where she had never seen them before, were smiling but anxious, diminished.
Because we are in Juliet’s point of view, we are seeing Sam and Sara through her eyes, and her thoughts. She doesn’t think of them as “mum and dad,” but by their first names, something that is never explained in the story, but which is nonetheless interesting, and helps describe and define Juliet’s character.
Sara gave a curious little cry, as if something had pecked her. “We’re long and short, but still we match,” she said.
At first Juliet did not understand what she meant. Then she figured it out—Sara was wearing a black linen skirt, down to her calves, and a matching jacket. The jacket’s collar and cuffs were of a shiny lime-green cloth with black polka dots. A turban of the same green material covered her hair. She must have made the outfit herself, or got some dressmaker to make it for her. Its colors were unkind to her skin, which looked as if fine chalk dust had settled over it.
Juliet was wearing a black minidress.
What do you notice about Sara’s character, based on her dialogue, and her clothes? Later in the story, we’ll discover that she’s experiencing specific difficulties that come from her aging process–and her relationship with her husband, Sam. But here in this moment, these details immediately start to show us her current situation. We also see Juliet’s character contrasted with Sara’s, with the 1969 “black minidress.” These clothing choices help us get deeper into our understanding of these characters.
Writing exercise: show us a character through a character commenting on their own clothing.
“I was wondering what you’d think of me, black in the summertime, like I’m all in mourning,” Sara said. “And here you’re dressed to match. You look so smart—I’m all in favor of these short dresses.”
“And long hair,” Sam said. “An absolute hippie.” He bent to look into the baby’s face. “Hello, Penelope.”
Sara said, “What a dolly.”
She reached out for Penelope, but the arms that slid out of her sleeves were sticks too frail to hold any such burden. And they did not have to, because Penelope, who had tensed at the first sound of her grandmother’s voice, now yelped and turned away, and hid her face in Juliet’s neck.
Sara laughed. “Am I such a scarecrow?” Again, her voice was ill-controlled, rising to shrill peaks, then falling away. A couple of people on the platform turned to look. This was new—though maybe not entirely. Juliet remembered that people had always looked her mother’s way when she talked or laughed, but in the old days it had been a spurt of merriment they’d noticed, something girlish and attractive (though not everybody had liked that, either—they had said that she was always trying to get attention).
Juliet said, “She’s so tired.”
The plot of “Soon” swings on the varying needs of the varying characters: Juliet’s need to understand “home,” in varying meanings of the word; Sara’s relationship with Sam; Sam’s relationship with both Sara and Irene; and how all this happens in the context of their wider community. Notice how this is all on display right away. So often we feel like we have to wait for the story to start, with a long lead-up. Notice, however, how Alice Munro’s characters immediately display who they are through their dialogue, actions, appearance, and internal thoughts.
Writing exercise: find an old story you’ve written and get your characters acting like themselves immediately. What are their varying wants and needs? What is at stake for them? We discover these things by simply being aware of who they are.
Sam introduced the young woman who was standing behind them, keeping her distance as if she were taking care not to be identified as part of their group. And in fact it had not occurred to Juliet that she was.
“Juliet, this is Irene. Irene Avery.”
Juliet stuck out her hand as well as she could while holding Penelope and the diaper bag, and when it became evident that Irene was not going to shake hands—or perhaps had not noticed the intention—she smiled. Irene did not smile back. She stood quite still but gave the impression of wanting to bolt.
“Hello,” Juliet said.
Irene said, “Pleased to meet you,” in a sufficiently audible voice, but without expression.
“Irene is our good fairy,” Sara said, and then Irene’s face did change. She scowled a little, with sensible embarrassment.
She was not as tall as Juliet, but she was broader in the shoulders and hips, with strong arms and a stubborn chin. She had thick, springy black hair, pulled back from her face into a stubby ponytail, rather hostile black eyebrows, and the sort of skin that tans easily. Her eyes were green or blue, a light, surprising color against this skin, and hard to look into, being deep-set. Also because she held her head slightly lowered and twisted to the side. This wariness seemed hardened and deliberate.
“She does one heck of a lot of work for a fairy,” Sam said with his large strategic grin.
What is the underlying subtext of what these characters are saying? Notice how well we understand the emotional role that Irene is playing in Sam and Sara’s life, through the perspective and point of view of Juliet.
Writing exercise: two characters introduce a third character to a fourth character (who is the point-of-view character.) What is each character thinking and feeling in this moment? We’ll get the internal thoughts of the point-of-view character: how can the emotions of the other three characters be shown externally, through action, dialogue, and description?
And now, of course, Juliet recalled the mention in letters of a woman who had been hired to help, when Sara began to go so drastically downhill. But she had thought of somebody much older. Irene was surely no older than Juliet herself.
The car was the same Pontiac that Sam had bought secondhand maybe ten years earlier. The original blue paint showed in streaks here and there but was mostly faded to gray, and the effects of winter road salt could be seen in its petticoat fringe of rust.
“The Old Gray Mare,” Sara said, almost out of breath after the short walk from the railway platform.
“She hasn’t given up,” Juliet said. She spoke admiringly, as seemed to be expected. She had forgotten that this was what they called the car, though it was a name that she herself had thought up.
“Oh, she never gives up,” Sara said, once she was settled, with Irene’s help, in the back seat. “And we’d never give up on her.”
One of the best ways to reveal character is by simply placing various characters into various emotional relation with objects and other characters. How do they feel about the world around them? How do they respond to the things in their lives? To what objects or other people do they attach emotional connection (or not)?
Writing exercise: write a 101-word story (or even fewer!) that simply places a character into an emotional relationship with an object of some kind. How does this character feel about this object? Why?
Juliet got into the front seat, juggling Penelope, who was beginning to whimper. The heat inside the car was shocking, even though it had been parked with the windows down in the scanty shade of the station poplars.
“Actually, I’m considering,” Sam said as he backed out, “I’m considering turning her in for a truck.”
“He doesn’t mean it,” Sara shrieked.
“For the business,” Sam continued. “It’d be a lot handier. And you’d get a certain amount of advertising every time you drove down the street, just from the name on the door.”
“He’s teasing,” Sara said. “How am I going to ride around in a vehicle that says ‘Fresh Vegetables’? Am I supposed to be the squash or the cabbage?”
“Better pipe down, Missus,” Sam said. “Or you won’t have any breath left when we reach home.”
After nearly thirty years of teaching in the public schools around the county, Sam had suddenly quit and decided to get into the business of selling vegetables full time. He had always cultivated a big vegetable garden, and raspberry canes, in the empty lot beside their house, and they had sold their surplus to a few people around town. But now, apparently, this was to become his way of making a living, selling to grocery stores and perhaps eventually putting up a market stall at the front gate.
“You’re serious about all this?” Juliet said quietly.
“Darn right I am.”
“You’re not going to miss teaching?”
“Not on your Nelly-o. I was fed up. I was fed up to the eyeballs.”
It was true that after all those years he had never been offered, in any school, the job of principal. She supposed that that was what he was fed up with. He was a remarkable teacher, one whose antics and energy everyone remembered, his grade six unlike any other year in his pupils’ lives. Yet he had been passed over, time and again, and probably for that very reason. His methods could be seen as undercutting authority. So it was easy enough to imagine authority deciding that he was not the sort of man to be in charge, that he’d do less harm where he was.
He liked outdoor work; he was good at talking to people; he would probably do well selling vegetables.
But Sara would hate it.
Notice how we get backstory here through a mix of Juliet’s internal narration (“Sam had suddenly quit…”) as well as Sam’s dialogue about why he did certain things that he did. This technique of mixing the narration with the character’s dialogue helps us see Sam’s backstory through both Juliet’s perspective and Sam’s.
Writing exercise: put two characters into a conversation, preferably while they’re doing something together. Mix in paragraphs of narration about one of the character’s backstories with one of the characters also talking about that backstory.
Juliet did not much care for the idea, either. If there was a side to be on, however, she would have to choose his. She was not going to define herself as a snob.
And the truth was that she saw herself—she saw herself and Sam and Sara, but particularly herself and Sam—as superior in their own way to everybody around them. So why should his peddling vegetables matter?
Sam spoke now in a softer, conspiratorial voice. “What’s her name?”
He meant the baby’s.
“Penelope. We’re not going to call her Penny. Just Penelope.”
“No, I mean—I mean her last name.”
“Oh. Well, it’s Henderson-Porteous, I guess. Or Porteous-Henderson. But maybe that’s too much of a mouthful, when she’s already called Penelope? We knew that, but we wanted Penelope. We’ll have to settle it somehow.”
“So. He’s given her his name,” Sam said. “Well, that’s something. I mean, that’s good.”
Juliet was surprised for a moment, then not. “Of course he has,” she said, pretending to be mystified and amused. “She’s his.”
“Oh, yes. Yes. But given the circumstances.”
“If you mean the fact that we’re not married,” she said, “it’s hardly anything to take into account. Where we live, nobody thinks about that.”
“Suppose not,” Sam said. “Was he married to the first one?”
Juliet had told them about Eric’s wife, whom he had cared for during the eight years that she had lived after her car accident.
“Ann? Yes. Well, I don’t really know. But yes. I think so. Yes.”
Sara called into the front seat, “Wouldn’t it be nice to stop for ice cream?”
“We’ve got ice cream in the fridge at home,” Sam called back. And added quietly, shockingly to Juliet, “Take her in anyplace for a treat, and she just wants to put on a show.”
How characters talk to other characters shows us so much about how those characters are. Especially when they talk one way to one character, and another way to another character. The “shockingly” judgment is something that Juliet is thinking, not the author herself (Munro.) We are in Juliet’s point of view in this entire story: it is narrated/filtered through her consciousness, yet even so, we also feel as though we come to understand Juliet herself from both inside and outside.
Writing exercise: three characters are in a car. Two in the front seat and one in the back. What do these characters say to one another? What do they say privately to just one another? What do they say under their breath? How do their facial expressions change, if at all?
The windows were still down; a warm wind blew through the car. It was full summer—a season that never arrived, as far as Juliet could tell, on the West Coast. The hardwood trees were humped over the far edge of the fields, making blue-black caves of shade, and the crops and the meadows in front of them, under the hard sunlight, were gold and green. Vigorous young wheat and barley and corn and beans—fairly blistering your eyes.
The weight that the weather takes on in this story serves two purposes: it allows us to fully feel the world around Juliet, and it perhaps thematically reinforces the sense of heaviness/stifleness that Juliet is feeling, compared to the relatively colder weather of the west coast.
Writing exercise: in a 200-word story, bring weather in, in some fashion, whether metaphorically/thematically, and/or as directly relates to the emotional mindset of a particular character.
Sara said, “What’s this conference in aid of? In the front seat? We can’t hear back here for the wind.”
Sam said, “Nothing interesting. Just asking Juliet how her fellow’s doing with the fishing.”
When a character tells another character a direct lie, we learn more about both characters. Why is Sam lying? Our answer helps us understand him more. We also learn more about Sara, in this scene: her physical limitations, perhaps, as well as the diminishing role she is playing in Sam’s internal life.
Writing exercise: one character tells another character a direct lie. Why?
Eric still made his living prawn-fishing. Once, he had been a medical student, Juliet had learned. But that had come to an end because he had performed an abortion, on a friend (not a girlfriend). All had gone well, but somehow the story got out. This was something that Juliet had thought of revealing to her broad-minded parents. She had wanted, perhaps, to establish Eric as an educated man, not just a fisherman. But why should that matter, especially now that Sam was a vegetable man? Also, their broad-mindedness was possibly not as reliable as she had thought.
There was more to be sold than fresh vegetables and berries. Jam, bottled juice, and relish were turned out in the kitchen. The first morning of Juliet’s visit, raspberry-jam-making was in progress, Irene in charge, her blouse wet with steam or sweat, sticking to her skin between the shoulder blades. Every so often she flashed a look at the television set, which had been wheeled down the back hall to the kitchen doorway, so that you had to squeeze around it to get into the room. On the screen was a Bullwinkle cartoon. Now and then Irene gave a loud laugh at the cartoon, and Juliet laughed a little, too, to be comradely. Of this Irene took no notice.
Counter space had to be cleared so that Juliet could boil and mash an egg for Penelope’s breakfast, and make some coffee and toast for herself. “Is that enough room?” Irene asked her, in a voice that was dubious, as if Juliet were an intruder whose demands could not be foreseen.
Close up, Juliet saw that many fine black hairs grew on Irene’s forearms. Some grew on her cheeks, too, just in front of her ears.
In her sidelong way, Irene watched everything that Juliet did, watched her fiddle with the knobs on the stove (not remembering at first which burners they controlled), watched her lifting the egg out of the saucepan and peeling off the shell (which stuck and came away in little bits rather than in large easy pieces), then watched her choosing a saucer to mash it in.
“You don’t want her to drop that on the floor.” This was a reference to the china saucer. “Don’t you got a plastic dish for her?”
“I’ll watch it,” Juliet said.
It turned out that Irene, who was three years younger than Juliet, was a mother, too. She had a three-year-old son and a daughter who was just under two. Their names were Trevor and Tracy. Their father had been killed the previous summer, in an accident at the chicken barn where he worked. “Right in time for my twenty-first birthday,” Irene said, as if misfortunes were something to accumulate, like charms on a bracelet.
After Penelope had eaten all of the egg that she would accept, Juliet hoisted her onto her hip and carried her upstairs. Halfway up she realized that she had not washed the saucer.
There was nowhere to leave the baby, who was not yet walking but could crawl very quickly. Certainly she could not be left for even five minutes in the kitchen, with the boiling water in the sterilizer and the hot jam and the chopping knives—it was too much to ask Irene to watch her. And first thing this morning she had again refused to make friends with Sara. So Juliet carried her up the enclosed stairs to the attic—having shut the door behind them—and set her there on the steps to play while she looked for the old playpen. Fortunately, Penelope was an expert on steps.
This scene places Juliet and Irene into direct conflict. The unspoken situation is dispute over territory: the kitchen, the house. In stories, the terrain over which characters fight is often very seemingly “small” and unspoken, yet if we feel that it’s important to the characters, then the conflicts in the story takes on that weight and importance, as well.
Writing exercise: place two characters into conflict over who will wash the dishes, mow the lawn, or change in the oil in an automobile (say.) What is at stake for each character?
The house was a full two stories tall, its rooms high-ceilinged but boxlike—or so they seemed to Juliet now. The roof was steeply pitched, so that you could walk around in the middle of the attic. Juliet had done that when she was a child—walked around telling herself stories she had read, with certain additions or alterations, and dancing for an imaginary audience. The real audience consisted of broken or simply banished furniture, old trunks, an immensely heavy buffalo coat, a purple-martin house (a present from long-ago students of Sam’s, which had failed to attract any purple martins), a German helmet that was supposed to have been brought home from the First World War by Sam’s father, and an unintentionally comic amateur’s painting of the Empress of Ireland sinking in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with matchstick figures flying off in all directions.
And there, leaning against the wall, was “I and the Village.” Face out—no attempt had been made to hide it. And no dust on it to speak of, so it had not been there for long.
She found the playpen after a few minutes of searching. It was a handsome, heavy piece of furniture, with a wooden floor and spindle sides. And the baby carriage. Her parents had kept everything, had hoped for another child. There had been one miscarriage at least. Laughter in their bed, on Sunday mornings, had made Juliet feel as if the house had been invaded by a stealthy, even shameful disturbance, not favorable to herself.
The baby carriage was of the kind that folded down to become a stroller. This was something Juliet had forgotten about, or hadn’t known. Sweating by now, and covered with dust, she got to work to effect this transformation. This sort of job was never easy for her; she never grasped right away the manner in which things were put together, and she might have dragged the whole thing downstairs and gone out to the garden to get Sam to help her, but for the thought of Irene. Irene’s flickering pale eyes, indirect but measuring looks, clever hands. Her vigilance, in which there was something that couldn’t quite be called contempt. Juliet didn’t know what it could be called. An attitude, indifferent but uncompromising, like a cat’s.
She managed at last to get the stroller into shape. It was cumbersome, half again as big as the stroller she was used to. And filthy, of course. As she herself was by now, and Penelope, on the steps, even more so. And right beside the baby’s hand was something Juliet hadn’t even noticed. A nail. The sort of thing you paid no attention to, until you had a baby at the hand-to-mouth stage, and that you had then to be on the lookout for all the time.
And she hadn’t been. Everything here distracted her. The heat, Irene, the things that were familiar, and the things that were unfamiliar.
I and the Village.
“Oh,” Sara said. “I hoped you wouldn’t notice. Don’t take it to heart.”
And now we see the importance of the painting, the seed of which was planted at the beginning!
The sunroom was now Sara’s bedroom. Bamboo shades had been hung on all the windows, filling the small room—once part of the veranda—with a brownish-yellow light and a uniform heat. Sara, however, was wearing pink flannel pajamas. Yesterday, at the station, with her pencilled eyebrows and raspberry lipstick, her turban and suit, she had looked to Juliet like an elderly Frenchwoman (not that Juliet had seen many elderly Frenchwomen), but now, with her white hair flying out in wisps, her bright eyes anxious under nearly nonexistent brows, she looked more like an oddly aged child. She was sitting up against the pillows with the quilts pulled up to her waist. When Juliet had walked her to the bathroom earlier, she had seen that despite the heat Sara was wearing both socks and slippers in bed.
A straight-backed chair had been placed by her bed, its seat being easier for her to reach than a table. On it were pills and medicines, talcum powder, moisturizing lotion, a half-drunk cup of milky tea, a glass filmed with the traces of some dark tonic, probably iron. On top of the bed were magazines—old copies of Vogue and Ladies’ Home Journal.
“I’m not,” Juliet said.
“We did have it hanging up. It was in the back hall by the dining-room door. Then Daddy took it down.”
“He didn’t say anything about it to me. He didn’t say that he was going to. Then came a day when it was just gone.”
“Why would he take it down?”
“Oh. It would be some notion he had, you know.”
“What sort of a notion?”
“Oh. I think—you know, I think it probably had to do with Irene. That it would disturb Irene.”
“There wasn’t anybody naked in it. Not like the Botticelli.”
For indeed there was a print of “The Birth of Venus” hanging in Sam and Sara’s living room. It had been the subject of nervous jokes years ago on the occasions when they had had other teachers to supper.
“No. But it was modern. I think it made Daddy uncomfortable. Or maybe looking at it with Irene looking at it—that made him uncomfortable. He might have been afraid that it would make her feel—oh, sort of contemptuous of us. You know—she might think we were weird. He wouldn’t like for Irene to think we were that kind of people.”
Juliet said, “The kind of people who would hang that kind of picture? You mean he’d care so much what she thought of our pictures?”
“Oh, well. You know Daddy.”
“He’s never been afraid to disagree with people. Wasn’t that the trouble in his job?”
“What?” Sara said. “Oh. Yes. He can disagree. But he’s careful sometimes. And Irene. Irene is—he’s careful of her. She’s very valuable, Irene.”
“Did he think she’d quit her job because we had a weird picture?”
“I would have left it up, dear. I value anything that comes from you. But Daddy . . .”
Juliet said nothing. From the time when she was nine or ten until she was perhaps fourteen, she and Sara had had an understanding about Sam. You know Daddy.
This conversation between Sara and Juliet helps to even out Juliet’s perspective on her parents. She’s trying to understand “home,” throughout this story, and the conflicts between her parents–and between her and her parents.
Writing exercise: a child talks to one of their parents about the other parents. What does this help us learn about all three characters?
That was their time of being women together. Home permanents were tried on Juliet’s stubborn fine hair; dressmaking sessions produced outfits like nobody else’s; suppers were peanut-butter and tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches on the evenings when Sam stayed late for school meetings. Stories were told and retold about Sara’s old boyfriends and girlfriends, the jokes they’d played and the fun they’d had in the days when Sara was a schoolteacher, too, before her heart got bad. Glimpses of Sam’s besotted courtship, disasters with a borrowed car, the time he showed up at Sara’s door disguised as a tramp. Sara and Juliet, making fudge and threading ribbons through the eyelet trim on their petticoats, the two of them intertwined.
And then, abruptly, Juliet had wanted no more of it. She had wanted instead to talk to Sam late at night in the kitchen, to ask him about black holes, the Ice Age, God. She’d hated the way Sara undermined their talk with wide-eyed, ingenuous questions, the way she always tried somehow to bring the conversation back to herself. That was why the talks had had to happen late at night and with the understanding that neither she nor Sam ever spoke about. Wait until we’re rid of Sara. Just for the time being, of course.
There was a reminder that went along with that. Be nice to Sara. She risked her life to have you—that’s worth remembering.
“Daddy doesn’t mind disagreeing with people who are over him,” Sara said, taking a deep breath. “But you know how he is with people who are under him. He’ll do anything to make sure that they don’t feel he’s different from them. He just has to put himself down on their level.”
Juliet did know, of course. She knew the way Sam talked to the boy at the gas pumps, the way he joked in the hardware store. Still, she said nothing.
“He sucks up to them,” Sara concluded, with a sudden change of tone, a wavering edge of viciousness, a weak chuckle.
Juliet cleaned up the stroller and Penelope and herself, and set off on a walk into town. She had the excuse that she needed a certain brand of mild disinfectant soap with which to wash diapers—if she used ordinary soap, the baby would get a rash. But she had her own reasons, irresistible though embarrassing.
This was the way she had walked to school, for years of her life. Even when she was going to college, and came home on a visit, she had still been the same—a girl going to school. Would she never be done going to school? Somebody had asked Sam that at the time when she had just won the Intercollegiate Latin Translation Prize, and he had said, “ ’Fraid not.” He told this story on himself. God forbid that he should mention prizes. Leave Sara to do that—though Sara might have forgotten just what the prize was for.
And now here she was, redeemed. Like any other young woman, pushing her baby. Concerned about diaper soap. And this wasn’t just her baby. Her love child. She sometimes spoke of Penelope that way, just to Eric. He took it as a joke, she said it as a joke, because of course they lived together and had done so for four years, and they intended to go on together. The fact that they were not married meant nothing to him, as far as she knew, and she often forgot about it herself. But occasionally—and now, especially, here at home—it was the fact of her unmarried state that gave her some glory of accomplishment, a silly surge of bliss.
Continue to notice the weaving of external direct dialogue and Juliet’s own internal thoughts!
“So—you went upstreet today,” Sam said. (Had he always said “upstreet”? Sara and Juliet said “uptown.”) “See anybody you knew?”
“I had to go to the drugstore,” Juliet said. “So I was talking to Charlie Little.”
This conversation took place in the kitchen, after eleven o’clock at night. Juliet had decided that this was the best time to make up Penelope’s bottles for the next day.
“Little Charlie?” said Sam, who had always had this other habit she hadn’t remembered, the habit of continuing to call people by their school nicknames. “Did he admire the offspring?”
“And well he might.”
Sam was sitting at the table, drinking rye and smoking a cigarette. His drinking whiskey was new. Because Sara’s father had been a drunk—not a down-and-out drunk but enough of a terror around the house to make his daughter horrified by drinking—Sam had never so much as drunk a beer, at least to Juliet’s knowledge, at home.
Juliet hadn’t expected to see Charlie at the drugstore, though it belonged to his family. The last she had heard of him, he was going to be an engineer. She had mentioned that to him today, maybe tactlessly, but he had been easy and jovial when he told her that it hadn’t worked out. He had put on weight around the middle, and his hair had thinned, had lost some of its wave and shine. He had greeted Juliet with enthusiasm, with compliments for herself as well as her baby, and this had confused her so that she had felt her face and neck hot, slightly perspiring, all the time he talked to her. In high school, he had had no time for her—except for a decent greeting, since his manners had always been affable, democratic. He had taken out the most desirable girls in the school, and was now, as he told her, married to one of them. Janey Peel. They had two children, one of them about Penelope’s age, one older. That was the reason, he said, with a candor that seemed to owe something to Juliet’s own situation—that was the reason he hadn’t gone on to become an engineer.
So he knew how to win a smile and a gurgle from Penelope, and he’d chatted with Juliet as a fellow-parent, somebody now on the same level. She’d felt idiotically flattered and pleased. But there had been more to his attention than that—the quick glance at her unadorned left hand, the joke about his own marriage. And something else. He had appraised her covertly—perhaps he saw her now as a woman displaying the fruits of a boldly sexual life. Juliet, of all people. The gawk, the scholar.
“Does she look like you?” he had asked, when he squatted down to peer at Penelope.
“More like her father,” Juliet had replied casually, but with a flood of pride, the sweat now pearling on her upper lip.
“Does she?” Charlie had said, and straightened up, speaking confidentially. “I’ll tell you one thing, though. I thought it was a shame—”
Juliet said to Sam, “He told me he thought it was a shame what had happened with you.”
“He did, did he? What did you say to that?”
“I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what he meant. But I didn’t want him to know that.”
She sat down at the table. “I’d like a drink, but I don’t like whiskey.”
“So you drink now, too?”
“Wine. We make our own wine. Everybody in the Bay does.”
He told her a joke then, the sort of joke that he would never have told her before. It involved a couple going to a motel and it ended up with the line “So it’s like what I always tell the girls at Sunday school—you don’t have to drink and smoke to have a good time.”
She laughed but felt her face go hot, as it had with Charlie.
“Why did you leave your job?” she said. “Were you let go because of me?”
“Come on now.” Sam laughed. “Don’t think you’re so important. I wasn’t let go. I wasn’t fired.”
“All right, then. You quit.”
“Did it have anything at all to do with me?”
“I quit because I got goddam sick of my neck always being in that noose. I was on the point of quitting for years.”
“It had nothing to do with me?”
“All right,” Sam said. “I got into an argument. There were things said.”
“You don’t need to know. And don’t worry,” he said after a moment. “They didn’t fire me. They couldn’t have fired me. There are rules. It’s like I told you—I was ready to go anyway.”
“But you don’t realize,” Juliet said. “You don’t realize. You don’t realize just how stupid this is and what a disgusting place this is to live in, where people say that kind of thing. If I told people about this where I live, they wouldn’t believe it. It would seem like a joke.”
“Well. Unfortunately, your mother and I don’t live where you live. Here is where we live. Does that fellow of yours think it’s a joke, too? I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I’m going to look in on Mother and then I’m going to bed.”
“The passenger train,” Juliet said, with continued energy, even scorn. “It does still stop here, doesn’t it? You didn’t want me getting off here, did you?”
On his way out of the room, her father did not answer.
This scene might be one of the key scenes on which “Soon” hinges. Juliet has spent the story thinking of her parents as slightly backwards, and judging their relationship with one another. Now, she’s placed into a position of realizing that in the same way she is slightly ashamed of them, they are slightly ashamed of her, hopefully (in Juliet’s perspective) just because of the town. This deepens and complicates her visit home, and her attempt to understand her place of origin, and contextualize it in her current life, and plays out later during her argument with the minister. When we get to that scene, keep in mind that she’s not just arguing with him about religious faith: he’s serving as an external stand-in for her argument with home.
Light from the last of the town’s street lights now fell across Juliet’s bed. The big soft maple tree had been cut down, replaced by a patch of Sam’s rhubarb. Last night Juliet had left the curtains closed to shade the bed, but tonight she felt that she needed the outside air. So she had to move the pillow down to the foot of the bed, along with Penelope, who had slept like an angel with the light in her face.
She wished that she had drunk a little of the whiskey. She lay stiff with frustration and anger, composing in her head a letter to Eric. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I should never have come here. I can’t wait to come home.
When it was barely light in the morning, she woke to the noise of a vacuum cleaner. Then a voice—Sam’s—interrupted this noise, and she fell asleep again. When she woke up later, she thought it must have been a dream. Otherwise Penelope would have woken, and she hadn’t.
The kitchen was cooler this morning, no longer full of the smell of simmering fruit. Irene was fixing little caps of gingham cloth and labels onto all the jars.
“I thought I heard you vacuuming,” Juliet said, dredging up cheerfulness. “I must have dreamed it. It was only about five o’clock in the morning.”
Irene did not answer for a moment. She was writing on a label. She wrote with great concentration, her lips caught between her teeth.
“That was her,” she said when she had finished. “She woke your dad up and he had to go and make her quit.”
This seemed unlikely. The day before, Sara had left her bed only to go to the bathroom.
“He told me,” Irene said. “She wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks she’s going to do something, and then he has to get up and make her quit.”
“She must have a spurt of energy then,” Juliet said.
Why did she feel as if she should apologize?
“Yeah.” Irene was getting to work on another label. When that was done, she faced Juliet. “Wants to wake your dad up and get attention, that’s it. Him dead tired and he’s got to get out of bed and tend to her.”
Juliet turned away. Not wanting to set Penelope down, she juggled her on her hip while she fished the egg out with a spoon, tapped and shelled and mashed it with one hand.
While she fed Penelope she was afraid to speak, lest the tone of her voice alarm the baby and set her wailing. Something communicated itself to Irene, however. She said in a more subdued voice, but with an undertone of defiance, “That’s just the way they get. When they’re old like that, they can’t help it. They can’t think of nobody but themselves.”
Sara’s eyes were closed, but she opened them immediately. “Oh, my dear ones,” she said, as if laughing at herself. “My Juliet. My Penelope.”
Penelope seemed to be getting used to her. At least she did not cry this morning, or turn her face away.
The child character of Penelope, who places a massive role in the Munro story “Silence,” plays a very interesting role in this story. Like any young child on a trip with their parent, she is always with Juliet, and serves as a fulcrum around which the characters, by definition and necessity, must operate.
Writing exercise: taken an existing narrative you’ve written…and put a baby in it! How does it change (or not) the interactions between the characters?
“Here,” Sara said, reaching for one of her magazines. “Set her down and let her work at this.”
Penelope looked dubious for a moment, then grabbed a page and tore it vigorously.
“There you go,” Sara said. “All babies love to tear up magazines. I remember.”
On the bedside chair there was a bowl of Cream of Wheat, barely touched.
“You didn’t eat your breakfast?” Juliet said. “Is that not what you wanted?”
Sara looked at the bowl as if serious consideration were called for but couldn’t be managed.
“I don’t remember. No, I guess I didn’t want it. Who knows—crossed my mind that Irene could be poisoning me.” She had a little fit of giggling and gasping. “I’m just kidding,” she said, when she’d recovered. “But she is very fierce. Irene. We mustn’t underestimate Irene. Did you see the hairs on her arms?”
“Like cats’ hairs,” Juliet said.
“We must hope that none of them get into the jam.”
“Don’t make me laugh . . . anymore.”
Penelope became so absorbed in tearing up magazines that in a while Juliet was able to leave her in Sara’s room and carry the Cream of Wheat out to the kitchen. Without saying anything, she began to make an eggnog. Irene was in and out, carrying trays of jam jars to the car. On the back step, Sam was hosing off the earth that clung to some newly dug potatoes. He had begun to sing—too softly at first for his words to be heard. Then, as Irene came up the steps, more loudly. “ ‘Irene, good ni-i-ight. Irene, good night. Good night, Irene, good night, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.’ ”
Irene, in the kitchen, swung around and yelled, “Don’t sing that song about me!”
“What song about you?” Sam said, with feigned amazement. “Who’s singing a song about you?”
“You were. You just were.”
“Oh—that song. That song about Irene? The girl in the song? By golly—I forgot that was your name, too.”
He started up again, but humming, stealthily. Irene stood listening, flushed, with her chest going up and down, waiting to pounce if she should hear a word.
“Don’t you sing about me. If it’s got my name in it, it’s about me.”
Suddenly Sam burst out in full force.
“ ‘Last Saturday night I got married, me and my wife settled down—’ ”
“Stop it! You stop it!” Irene cried, wide-eyed, inflamed. “If you don’t stop, I’ll go out there and squirt the hose on you.”
Sam was delivering jam that afternoon to various grocery stores and a few gift shops that had placed orders. He invited Juliet to come along. He had gone to the hardware store and bought a brand-new baby’s car seat, for Penelope.
“That’s one thing we don’t have in the attic,” he said. “When you were little, I don’t know if they existed. Anyway, it wouldn’t have mattered. We didn’t have a car.”
“It’s very spiffy,” Juliet said. “I hope it didn’t cost a fortune.”
“A mere bagatelle,” Sam said, bowing her into the car.
Irene was in the field picking more raspberries. These would be for pies. Sam tooted the horn twice and waved as they set off, and Irene decided to respond, raising one arm as if batting away a fly.
“She’s a dandy girl,” Sam said. “I don’t know how we would have survived without her. But I imagine she seems pretty rough to you.”
“I hardly know her.”
“No. She’s scared stiff of you.”
“Surely not.” And trying to think of something appreciative, or at least neutral, to say about Irene, Juliet asked how her husband had been killed, at the chicken barn.
“I don’t know if he was a criminal type or just immature. Anyway, he got in with some goons who were planning a sideline in stolen chickens and of course they managed to set off the alarm and the farmer came out with a gun and, whether he meant to shoot him or not, he did—”
“So Irene and her in-laws went to court, but the fellow got off. Well, he would. It must have been pretty hard on her, though. Even if it doesn’t seem that the husband was much of a prize.”
Juliet said that of course it must have been, and asked him if Irene was somebody he had taught at school.
“No, no, no. She hardly got to school, as far as I can make out.”
He said that her family had lived up north, somewhere near Huntsville. One day they’d all gone into town. Father, mother, kids. And the father had told them that he had things to do and he’d meet them in a while. He told them where. When. And they walked around with no money to spend, until it was time, but he just never showed up.
“Never intended to show up. Ditched them. So they had to go on welfare. Lived in some shack out in the country, where it was cheap. Irene’s older sister, the one who was the mainstay, more than the mother, I gather—she died of a burst appendix. No way of getting her into town, snowstorm raging and they didn’t have a phone. Irene didn’t want to go back to school then, because her sister had sort of protected her from the way the other kids would act toward them. She may seem thick-skinned these days, but I guess she wasn’t always. Maybe even now it’s more of a masquerade.”
And now, he said, Irene’s mother was looking after the little boy and the little girl. “They’re cute kids, too. The little girl has some problem with a cleft palate and she’s already had one operation but she’ll need another one. She’ll be all right. But it’s just one more thing.”
One more thing.
What was the matter with Juliet? She felt no real sympathy. She felt herself rebelling, deep down, against this wretched litany. It was too much. When the cleft palate had appeared in the story, what she’d really wanted to do was complain. Too much.
She knew she was wrong, but the feeling would not budge. She was afraid to say anything more, lest out of her mouth she betray her hard heart. She was afraid she would say to Sam, “Just what is so wonderful about all this misery? Does it make her a saint?” Or she might say, most unforgivably, “I hope you don’t mean to get us mixed up with people like that.”
“I’m telling you,” Sam said, “at the time she came to help us out I was at my wits’ end. There, last fall, your mother was a downright catastrophe. It wasn’t exactly that she was letting everything go. No. Better if she had let everything go. Better if she’d done nothing. What she did, she’d start one job up and then she couldn’t finish it. Over and over. Not that this was anything absolutely new. I mean, I always had to pick up after her and help her do the housework. Me and you both—remember? She’d always been this sweet pretty girl with a bad heart, and she was used to being waited on. Once in a while over the years it did occur to me that she could have tried harder.
“But it got so bad,” he said. “It got so I’d come home to the washing machine in the middle of the kitchen floor and wet clothes slopping all over the place. And some baking mess she’d started and given up on, stuff charred to a crisp in the oven. I was scared she’d set herself on fire. Set the house on fire. I’d tell her and tell her, ‘Stay in bed.’ But she wouldn’t, and then she’d be all in this mess, crying. I tried a couple of girls coming in, and they just couldn’t handle her. So then—Irene.
“Irene,” he said with a robust sigh. “I bless the day. I tell you. Bless the day.”
But, like all good things, he said, this must come to an end. Irene was getting married. To a widower in his forties or fifties. A farmer. He was supposed to have money, and for her sake Sam hoped it was true. Because the man did not have much else to recommend him.
“By Jesus, he doesn’t. As far as I can see, he’s only got one tooth in his head. Bad sign, in my opinion. Too proud or stingy to get choppers. Think of it—a grand-looking girl like her.”
Although we as readers might keep waiting for some grand reveal (Sam is sleeping with Irene! The children are his!) this is not the move that Munro makes. She keeps all the tension as a tension of possiblities. We don’t know for sure the extent of their emotional thoughts, we just see how Irene is providing something that Sam desperately needs.
Writing exercise: keep the tension between two characters from going over the edge into the overly dramatic or mawkish. But have it enough to reveal the inner needs of one of the characters. What is spoken? What remains unspoken? How? Why?
The front windows were down and Juliet could smell the hay, which was freshly cut and baled—nobody made hay coils anymore. Some elm trees were still standing, marvels now, in their isolation.
They stopped in a village built all along one street in a narrow valley. Bedrock stuck out of the valley walls—the only place for many miles around where such massive rocks could be seen. Juliet remembered coming here one time as a child, when there was a special park that you paid to enter. In the park there was a fountain and a teahouse where they served strawberry shortcake and ice cream—and surely other things that she could not remember. Caves in the rock were named after the Seven Dwarfs. Sam and Sara had sat on the ground by the fountain eating ice cream while Juliet had rushed ahead to explore the caves (which were nothing much, really—quite shallow). She had wanted them to come with her, but Sam had said, “You know your mother can’t climb.”
“You run,” Sara had said. “Come back and tell us all about it.” She was dressed up. Her black taffeta skirt spread in a circle around her on the grass. Those were called ballerina skirts.
It must have been a special day.
Juliet asked Sam about this when he came out of the store. At first he could not remember. Then he did. A gyp joint, he said. He didn’t know when it had disappeared.
Juliet could see no trace anywhere along the street of a fountain or a teahouse.
What could the carefree occasion have been? A birthday? A wedding anniversary?
“A bringer of peace and order,” Sam said, and it took a moment for her to realize that he was still talking about Irene. “She’ll turn her hand to anything. Cut the grass and hoe the garden. Whatever she’s doing, she gives it her best and she behaves as if it’s a privilege to do it. That’s what never ceases to amaze me.”
He spoke insistently, even solemnly, over the noise of the car’s struggle up the hill.
“She restored my faith in women. Helpmates.”
Sam spent a long time in each store. People wanted to talk; they had been saving up jokes to tell him. A few followed him out to see his daughter and her baby.
“So that’s the girl who talks Latin,” one woman said.
“Getting a bit rusty nowadays,” Sam said. “Nowadays she has her hands full.”
“I bet,” the woman said, craning to get a look at Penelope. “But aren’t they a blessing? Oh, the wee ones.”
Juliet had thought she might talk to Sam about the thesis she was planning to return to—though at present that was still just a dream. Such subjects had come up naturally between them before. Not with Sara. Sara would say, “Now, you must tell me what you’re doing in your studies,” and Juliet would sum things up, and Sara might ask her how she kept all those Greek names straight. But Sam had known what she was talking about. At college, she had told her friends how her father had explained to her what “thaumaturgy” meant, when she ran across the word at the age of twelve or thirteen. They asked if her father was a scholar.
“Sure,” she said. “He teaches grade six.”
Now she had a feeling that if she talked about her thesis he would subtly try to undermine her. Or maybe not so subtly. He might use the word “airy-fairy.” Or claim to have forgotten things that she could not believe he had forgotten.
But maybe he had. Rooms in his mind had closed up, the windows blackened—what was in there judged by him to be too useless, too discreditable, to meet the light of day. Juliet spoke out more harshly than she intended. “Does she want to get married? Irene?” This question startled Sam, coming as it did in that tone and after a considerable silence.
“I don’t know,” he said. And after a moment, “I don’t see how she could.”
“Ask her,” Juliet said. “You must want to, the way you feel about her.”
They drove for a mile or two before he spoke. It was clear that she had given offense. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Happy, Grumpy, Dopey, Sleepy, Sneezy,” Sara said.
“Doc,” Juliet said.
“Doc. Doc. Happy, Sneezy, Doc, Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy—no. Sneezy, Bashful, Doc, Grumpy . . . Sleepy, Happy, Doc, Bashful.”
Having counted on her fingers, Sara said, “Wasn’t that eight?
“We went there more than once,” she added. “We used to call it the Shrine of Strawberry Shortcake. Oh, how I’d like to go again.”
“Well, there’s nothing there,” Juliet said. “I couldn’t see where it was.”
“I’m sure I could have. Why didn’t I go with you? A summer drive. What strength does it take to ride in a car? Daddy’s always saying I haven’t the strength.”
“You came to meet me.”
“Yes, I did,” Sara said. “But he didn’t want me to. I had to throw a fit.”
She reached around to pull up the pillows behind her head, but she couldn’t manage it, so Juliet did it for her.
“Drat,” Sara said. “What a useless piece of goods I am. I think I could handle a bath, though. What if company comes?”
Juliet asked if she was expecting anybody.
“No. But what if?”
So Juliet took her into the bathroom, and Penelope crawled after them. Then, when the water was ready and her grandmother had been hoisted in, Penelope decided that the bath must be for her as well. Juliet undressed her, and the baby and the old woman were bathed together. Though Sara, naked, did not look like an old woman as much as an old girl—a girl, say, who had suffered some exotic, wasting, desiccating disease. Penelope accepted her presence without the least alarm, but kept a firm hold on her own duck-shaped yellow soap.
It was in the bath that Sara finally brought herself to ask, circumspectly, about Eric.
“I’m sure he is a nice man,” she said.
“Sometimes,” Juliet said casually.
“He was so good to his first wife.”
“Only wife,” Juliet corrected her. “So far.”
“But I’m sure now you have this baby—you’re happy, I mean. I’m sure you’re happy.”
“As happy as is consistent with living in sin,” Juliet said, surprising her mother by wringing out a dripping washcloth over her soaped head.
“That’s what I mean,” Sara said, after ducking and covering her face, with a joyful shriek. Then, “Juliet?”
“You know I don’t mean it if I ever say mean things about Daddy. I know he loves me. He’s just unhappy.”
Very often in our stories, we don’t allow our characters to be as smart as we as writers are. We think that in order to create tension, we need them to see their entire world. Here, we see that Sara has the ability to think extensively about the people in her life, and truly understand them, even in the middle of the conflicts that they have–just as we, living our own lives, are able to do.
Writing exercise: return to one of your characters, and put the same level of intelligence you have into them. Allow them to think about, and react to, the other people in their life the way you do.
Juliet dreamed that she was a child again, and in this house, though the arrangement of the rooms was somewhat different. She looked out the window of one of the unfamiliar rooms and saw an arc of water sparkling in the air. This water came from the hose. Her father, with his back to her, was watering the garden. A figure moved in and out among the raspberry canes and was revealed, after a while, to be Irene—though a more childish Irene, supple and merry. She was dodging the water sprinkled from the hose. Hiding, reappearing, mostly successful but always caught again for an instant before she ran away. The game was supposed to be lighthearted, but Juliet, behind the window, watched it with disgust. Her father kept his back to her, yet she believed—she somehow saw—that he held the hose low, in front of his body, and that it was only the nozzle of it that he turned back and forth.
The dream was suffused with a sticky horror. Not the kind of horror that jostles its dim shapes outside your skin but the kind that curls through the narrowest passages of your blood.
When she woke, that feeling was still with her. She found the dream shameful, obvious, banal. It seemed a dirty indulgence of her own.
There was a knock on the front door in the middle of the afternoon. Nobody used the front door—Juliet found it a bit stiff to open.
In the scene that will follow, we’ll see Juliet’s identity and worldview come into conflict with the minister’s identity and worldview, and see the abstract/mental argument that both of them are very eager to have.
The man who stood there wore a well-pressed short-sleeved yellow shirt and tan pants. He was perhaps a few years older than she was, tall and rather frail-looking, slightly hollow-chested, but vigorous in his greeting, relentless in his smiling.
“I’ve come to see the lady of the house,” he said.
Juliet left him standing there and went into the sunroom.
“There’s a man at the door,” she said. “He might be selling something. Should I get rid of him?”
Sara was pushing herself up. “No, no,” she said breathlessly. “Tidy me a bit, can you? I heard his voice. It’s Don. It’s my friend Don.”
Don had already entered the house and could be heard outside the sunroom door.
“No fuss, Sara. It’s only me. Are you decent?”
Sara, with a wild and happy look, reached for the hairbrush she could not manage, then gave up and ran her fingers through her hair. Her voice rang out gaily. “I’m as decent as I’ll ever be, I’m afraid. Come in here.”
The man appeared, and she lifted her arms to him. “You smell of summer,” she said. “What is it?” She fingered his shirt. “Ironing. Ironed cotton. My, that’s nice.”
“I did it myself,” he said. “Sally’s over at the church messing about with the flowers. Not a bad job, eh?”
“Lovely,” Sara said. “But you almost didn’t get in. Juliet thought you were a salesman. Juliet’s my daughter. My dear daughter. I told you, didn’t I? I told you she was coming. Don is my minister, Juliet. My friend and minister.”
Don straightened up, grasped Juliet’s hand.
“Good you’re here—I’m very glad to meet you. And you weren’t so far wrong, actually. I am a sort of salesman.”
Juliet smiled politely.
“What church are you the minister of?”
The question made Sara laugh. “Oh, dear—that gives the show away, doesn’t it?”
“I’m from Trinity,” Don said, with his unfazed smile. “And as for giving the show away—it’s no news to me that Sara and Sam haven’t been involved with any of the churches in our community. I just started dropping in anyway, because your mother is such a charming lady.”
Juliet could not remember whether Trinity was the Anglican or the United church.
“Would you get Don a reasonable sort of chair, dear?” Sara said. “Here he is bending over me like a stork. And some sort of refreshment, Don? Would you like an eggnog? Juliet makes me the most delicious eggnogs. No, no, that’s probably too heavy. You’ve just come in from the heat of the day. Tea? That’s hot, too. Ginger ale? Some kind of juice? What juice do we have, Juliet?”
Don said, “I don’t need anything but a glass of water. That would be welcome.”
“No tea? Really?” Sara was quite out of breath. “But I think I’d like some. You could drink half a cup, surely. Juliet?”
In the kitchen, by herself—Irene was in the garden, hoeing around the beans—Juliet wondered if the tea had been a ruse to get her out of the room, for a few private words. A few private words, perhaps even a few words of prayer. The notion sickened her.
Sam and Sara had never belonged to any church, though Sam had told someone, early in their life here, that they were Druids. Word had gone around that they belonged to a church not represented in town, and that information had moved them up a notch from having no religion at all. Sam, at school, had never rebelled at having to read the Bible and say the Lord’s Prayer every morning, any more than he had objected to “God Save the Queen.”
“There’s times for sticking your neck out and times not to,” he’d said. “You satisfy them this way, and maybe you can get away with telling the kids a few facts about evolution.”
Sara had at one time been interested in the Baha’i faith, but Juliet believed that this interest had waned.
She made enough tea for the three of them and found some digestive biscuits in the cupboard—also the brass tray that Sara had usually taken out only for fancy occasions.
Don accepted a cup, and gulped down the ice water that she had remembered to bring him, but shook his head at the cookies.
“Not for me, thanks.” He seemed to say this with special emphasis, as if godliness forbade him.
He asked Juliet where she lived, what was the nature of the weather on the West Coast, what work her husband did.
“He’s a prawn fisherman, but he’s actually not my husband,” Juliet said pleasantly.
Don nodded. Ah, yes.
“Rough seas out there?”
“Whale Bay. I’ve never heard of it, but now I’ll remember it. What church do you go to in Whale Bay?”
“We don’t go. We don’t go to church.”
“Is there not a church of your sort handy?”
Smiling, Juliet shook her head. “There is no church of our sort. We don’t believe in God.”
Don’s cup made a little clatter as he set it down in its saucer. He said that he was sorry to hear that. “Truly sorry to hear that. How long have you been of this opinion?”
“I don’t know. Ever since I gave it any serious thought.”
“And your mother’s told me you have a child. You have a little girl, don’t you?”
Juliet said yes, she had.
“And she has never been christened? You intend to bring her up a heathen?”
Juliet said that she expected Penelope would make up her own mind about that someday. “But we intend to bring her up without religion. Yes.”
“That is sad,” Don said quietly. “For yourselves, it’s sad. You and your—whatever you call him—you’ve decided to reject God’s grace. Well. You are adults. But to reject it for your child—it’s like denying her nourishment.”
Juliet felt her composure cracking. “But we don’t believe,” she said. “We don’t believe in God’s grace. It’s not like denying her nourishment—it’s refusing to bring her up on lies.”
“Lies. What millions of people all over the world believe in you call lies. Don’t you think that’s a little presumptuous of you?”
“Those millions of people don’t necessarily believe in it—they just go to church,” Juliet said, her voice heating. “They just don’t think. If there is a God, then God gave me a mind and didn’t He intend me to use it?
“Also,” she said, trying to hold herself steady. “Also, millions of people believe something different. They believe in Buddha, for instance. So how does millions of people believing in something make it true?”
“Christ is alive,” Don said readily. “Buddha isn’t.”
“That’s just something to say. What does it mean? I don’t see any proof of either one being alive, as far as that goes.”
“You don’t. But others do. Do you know that Henry Ford—Henry Ford, II, who has everything that anybody could desire in life—nevertheless gets down on his knees and prays to God every night of his life?”
“Henry Ford?” Juliet cried. “Henry Ford? What does anything Henry Ford does matter to me?”
The argument was taking the course that arguments of this sort are bound to take. The minister’s voice, which had started out more sorrowful than angry—though always indicating ironclad conviction—now had a shrill and scolding tone, while Juliet, who had begun, she thought, in reasonable resistance, calm, shrewd, rather maddeningly polite, was in a cold and biting rage. Both of them cast around for arguments and refutations that would be more insulting than useful.
Meanwhile, Sara nibbled on a digestive biscuit, not looking up at them. Now and then she shivered, as if their words had struck her, but they were beyond noticing.
What did bring their display to an end was the loud wailing of Penelope, who had woken wet and had complained softly for a while, then more vigorously, and had finally given way to fury. Sara heard her first and tried to attract their attention.
“Penelope,” she said faintly, then, with more effort, “Juliet. Penelope.”Juliet and the minister both looked at her distractedly, and then the minister said, with a sudden drop in his voice, “Your baby.”
Notice the strength in Sara, here, interupting the argument in order to bring Juliet, her daughter, back to the real world. We’ve only seen weakness (mostly) in Sara up to this point: in this moment, we see her strength.
Writing exercise: in the same way that we’ve been set up to see Sara as “weak” throughout the piece, find an existing character you’ve written about to whom things happen, as opposed to making things happen. Is there a way to have that character find a position of strength/agency? How?
Juliet hurried from the room. She was shaking when she picked Penelope up, and she came close to stabbing her as she was pinning on a dry diaper. Penelope stopped crying, not because she was comforted but because she was alarmed by this rough attention. Her wide wet eyes, her astonished stare broke into Juliet’s preoccupation, and she tried to settle herself down, talking as gently as she could and then picking her child up, walking with her up and down the hall. After a few minutes the tension began to leave Penelope’s body.
Juliet felt the same thing happening to her, and when she thought that a certain amount of control and quiet had returned to both of them she carried Penelope downstairs.
The minister had come out of Sara’s room and was waiting for her. In a voice that might have been contrite but sounded, in fact, frightened, he said, “That’s a nice baby.”
Juliet said, “Thank you.”
She thought that now they might properly say goodbye, but something was holding him. He continued to look at her. He put his hand out as if to catch hold of her shoulder, then dropped it.
“Do you know if you have—” he said, then shook his head slightly. The “have” had come out sounding like “hab.”
“Jooze,” he said, and slapped his hand against his throat. He waved in the direction of the kitchen.
Juliet’s first thought was that he must be drunk. His head was wagging back and forth, his eyes seemed to be filmed over. Had he come here drunk? Had he brought something in his pocket? Then she remembered. A girl, a pupil at Torrance House. This girl, a diabetic, would suffer a kind of seizure, become thick-tongued, distraught, staggering, if she went too long without food.
Shifting Penelope to her hip, she took hold of his arm and steadied him along toward the kitchen. Juice. That was what they had given the girl, that was what he was talking about.
“Just a minute, just a minute, you’ll be all right,” she said. He held himself upright, hands pressed down on the counter, head lowered.
There was no orange juice—she remembered giving Penelope the last of it that morning. But there was a bottle of grape soda, which Sam and Irene liked to drink when they came in from working in the garden.
“Here,” she said. Managing with one hand, as she was used to doing, she poured out a glassful. “Here.” And, as he drank, she said, “I’m sorry there’s no juice. But it’s the sugar, isn’t it? You have to get some sugar.”
He drank it down. He said, “Yeah. Sugar. Thanks.” Already his voice was clearing. She remembered this, too, about the girl at the school—how quick and apparently miraculous the recovery. But before he was quite recovered, or quite himself, while he was still holding his head at a slant, he met her eyes. Not on purpose, it seemed, just by chance. The look in his eyes was not grateful, or forgiving—it was not really personal. It was just the raw look of an astounded animal, hanging on to whatever it could find.
And within a few seconds the eyes, the face, became the face of the man, the minister, who set down his glass and without another word fled the house.
Sara was either asleep or pretending to be when Juliet went to pick up the tea tray. Her sleeping state, her dozing state, and her waking state now had such delicate and shifting boundaries that it was hard to distinguish among them. At any rate, she spoke—she said in little more than a whisper, “Juliet?”
Juliet paused in the doorway.
“You must think Don is . . . rather a simpleton,” Sara said. “But he isn’t well. He’s a diabetic. It’s serious.”
Juliet said, “Yes.”
“He needs his faith.”
“Foxhole argument,” Juliet said, but quietly, and perhaps Sara did not hear, for she went on talking.
“My faith isn’t so simple,” Sara said, her voice shaky (and seeming to Juliet, at this moment, strategically pathetic). “I can’t describe it. But it’s . . . all I can say is . . . it’s something. It’s a . . . wonderful . . . something. When it gets really bad for me—when it gets so bad I . . . You know what I think then?”
Juliet shook her head.
“I think, All right. I think, Soon—soon I’ll see Juliet.”
In another typically Munrovian fashion, the narrative then moves from the above scene into another scene (in this case, a letter), without a clarifying or explaining transition. We’re able to hear and see how Juliet describes her situation to her partner, Eric, which teaches us about their relationship, in addition to their individual characters.
Writing exercise: following a scene in your story, have one character write another character a letter (or email, text, social media message, etc.) describing what has been happening. How can this technique add to the richness and texture of the piece?
D_readed (Dearest) Eric, Where to begin_? I am fine and Penelope is fine. Considering. She walks confidently now around Sara’s bed but is still leery of striking out with no support. The summer heat is amazing, compared with the West Coast. Even when it rains. It’s a good thing it does rain, because Sam is going full tilt at the market-garden business. The other day I rode around with him in the ancient vehicle delivering the newly dug first potatoes of the season and fresh raspberries and raspberry jam (made by a sort of Junior Ilse Koch type who inhabits our kitchen). He is quite gung-ho. Sara stays in bed and dozes or looks at outdated fashion magazines. A minister came to visit her and he and I got into a big stupid row about the existence of God or some such hot topic. The visit is going O.K., though. . . .
This was a letter that Juliet found years later. Eric must have saved it by accident—it had no particular importance in their lives.
We can read the juice incident with the minister as a climactic moment of the story, externally. It’s the moment of greatest physical tension, but in a typical Munrovian fashion, we are about to move into the moment of greatest emotional tension, below, by going far forward in time, then backward:
She had gone back to the house of her childhood once more, a few months after that visit, for Sara’s funeral. Irene was no longer around, and Juliet had no memory of asking or being told where she was. Most probably she had married. As Sam did again, a couple of years later. He married a fellow-teacher, a good-natured, handsome, competent woman. They lived in her house—Sam tore down the house where he and Sara had lived, and extended the garden for his crops. When his wife retired, they bought a trailer and began to go on long winter trips. They visited Juliet twice at Whale Bay. Eric took them out in his boat. He and Sam got along well. As Sam said, like a house afire.
When she read the letter, Juliet winced, as anybody does on discovering the preserved and disconcerting voice of some past fabricated self. She wondered at the sprightly coverup, contrasting, as it did, with the pain of her memories. Then she thought that some shift must have taken place, during that visit, which she did not remember. Some shift concerning where home was. It had stopped being at Whale Bay with Eric and had slipped back to where it had been before, all her life before.
Because it’s what happens at home that you try to protect, as best you can, for as long as you can.
And yet she had not protected Sara. When Sara had said, “Soon I’ll see Juliet,” Juliet had found no reply. Could she not have managed something? Why should it have been so difficult? Just to say, “Yes.” To Sara it would have meant so much—to herself, surely, so little. But she had turned away. She had carried the tray to the kitchen, and there she had washed and dried the cups and also the glass that had held grape soda. She had put everything away.
Additional Writing Exercises
- Rewrite “Soon” in 55 words. What is kept? What is omitted? (This exercise is all about getting to the true heart of the story and is useful to apply to your own work, as well. What is essential?)
- As titles are not copyrightable, write a short work of 55 words that also uses “Soon” as a title, but uses the phrase in a different way than this story. What is the particular resonance of the phrase for your specific story?
- Write a short work of 101 words in which a person returns home. Set it in 1969.
- Write a short work of 300 words in which a person returns home. Set it in 2019.
- Write a short work of 500 words in which one of the hallmarks is that a character refers to their parents by their first names.
- Write a short work of 750 words in which one character returns home to visit their parents, and discovers that someone else living in the household doesn’t like them, or feels threatened by their visit.
- Write a short work of 1,000 words in which one character is going to visit another character, but the other character doesn’t know that the visit is coming.
- Write a short work of 2,500 words in which two characters are talking to one another about a gift that one character gave another, but the second character hid it, instead of displaying it.
- Write a short work of 5,000 words that moves around in chronological time, with the purpose of moving deeper into character, instead of forward in time.
- Write a short work of 7,500 words in which a character deals with the aging of their parents, and its effect not only on the point-of-view character, but the parents themselves.