Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

         Falling

 

 

 

I was walking along Addison's main street in the spring of 1950 when I happened to look through the big front window at Penny's Department store and saw Janice Winter standing in the middle of the lingerie section.

 

I had been in love with Janice Winter for years.

 

I pushed my way in through the swinging doors and edged around all those white and pink things until I got down a few more aisles to the perfume section.  That was okay.  A boy can be in the perfume section.  Maybe I really did have a girlfriend.  And I was buying perfume for her birthday.  Why not?

 

I studied a few bottles and looked up.  Janice Winter!  She had always been two years ahead of me in high school. And now she was attending some university out west.

 

I couldn't just stare at her, standing like she was in the middle of all those white and pink things.  So I kept studying the perfume bottles, pretending to get ready to buy something.

 

"Well, hello!  Casey Jensen!"

 

Janice Winter stood right in front of me.

 

"So how are you?"

 

"Oh . . . ," I said.

 

"You look great!"

 

"Oh, yeah, I'm fine . . ."  I could smell the perfume coming from her.  Roses, maybe.

 

"Neat-o.  You know, I've seen Liz and Donna and Betty, even Tim, some of the old gang, but most everyone's still away."

 

"Oh, yeah?"

 

"So how's every little thing at Addison High?"

 

"Oh, well, you know."

 

"The same?"

 

"Pretty much."

 

Janice Winter had never talked to me.  Not ever.  Not the whole time in junior high or high school.

 

"Hey, wow!  You know, Casey, it's sort of strange being here, back home in Addison."

 

"Yeah?" I said.

 

"A university's really different."

 

"Different?"

 

"You'll see when you go.  What are you now?  Junior?  Senior?  What?"

 

"Senior."

 

"Senior!  Casey!  You?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"Neat-o.  Hey!  Why don't you come out to the University of Oregon!"

 

"The University of Oregon?"

 

"Casey, it's a really neat school.  Just great!  People there are really fabulous.  See, out west everything's different.  Not like here in dumb Iowa."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"And the spirit, Casey.  Everybody really supports the team.  You know, the football team.  And the Greek system.  It's great."

 

"The Greek system?"

 

"Frats and sororities.  Oregon's got one of the best Greek systems in the country.  Everybody says so.  And I pledged Tri Delt.  Right off.  Tri Delt, Casey!"

 

"Tri Delt?"

 

"You know, Delta Delta Delta,"

 

"Wow!" I said, although I really didn't know what Tri Delt or Delta Delta Delta was.

 

"We've got a wonderful group of girls.  Just fabulous!"

 

"I'll bet."

 

Janice Winter stepped in even closer to me and took both of my hands in hers.

 

"Casey, you'd just love the University of Oregon."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"You'd love it.  It's so great!  You know, maybe you could pledge Sigma Chi."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"Or maybe Phi Psi.  Or even Sigma Nu."

 

She gave my hands a squeeze.

 

"Yeah," I said.  "Maybe I could think of going to the University of Oregon."

 

"What?  Neat-o!  Hey, that's really fabulous!"

 

"Why not?"

 

"Oh, Casey, you'd love it!"

 

And Janice Winter reached up and gave me a little peck on the cheek.

 

I don't know how far I walked that afternoon.  Way out past the alfalfa plant at the north end of Addison and along the gravel roads by the cornfields.  Then I turned east and finally back into town by the John Deere dealer.  All the time the inside of me was bursting with Janice Winter, how she stood close to me, the smell of her perfume, roses, the way she reached over and took my hands, and the most unbelievable thing of all, her kissing me.

 

Wow!

 

By the time I got to the Dairy Queen, this idea came to me.  I didn't know whether I believed it or not.  Maybe it wasn't true, but, then, maybe, on the other hand, it was.  This was the idea:  Janice Winter secretly loved me.  She just hadn't been able to show it all these years.  Not at a place like Addison High.  Girls in a higher grade could never show an interest in a boy in a lower grade.  That wasn't allowed.  But what if she had fallen in love with me some years ago about the same time I had fallen in love with her?  What if she'd been secretly watching me all this time?  Because this is what I figured:  Why else would she have come up to me like that in Penny's?  Been so excited to see me?  Want me to come out to the University of Oregon?

 

Well, I just kept on walking right past the Dairy Queen and the court house at the square with the cannons sitting out in front of it and down Oak Street to the town library.

 

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Williams," I said to the woman who always sat behind the desk and who lived with her mother over on Cherry Street.

 

"Hello, Casey.  I was wondering if we'd see you in here today."

 

I told her I wanted to have another look at the catalogs for universities.

 

"My goodness, Casey, haven't you had your fill of those yet?"

 

The library had a pretty good collection of university and college catalogs over in the Reference Section on a bottom shelf under the volumes of the Compton's Encyclopedia.  Of course, there were three or four copies of the catalogs for The University of Iowa and Iowa State University.  You'd expect that.  But the library also had catalogs for most of the Midwestern universities and colleges, places like Beloit and Carlton and Grinnell.  They even had catalogs for a lot of schools out East.  But I didn't know about The University of Oregon.

 

I looked down into the "O's," and there it was.  A green volume.  I pulled it out.  "The University of Oregon," it said on the front of it.  I opened it up and looked at the first page and read that the university was located in Eugene, Oregon, that it was chartered in 1872 and opened in 1876, and that it had schools for liberal arts, architecture and the allied arts, business administration, community service and public affairs, education, health and physical education and recreation, journalism, law librarianship, music, dentistry, medicine and nursing, that it ran on the quarter system, and that students there called themselves "Ducks."

 

The catalog also had a lot of pictures in it, pictures of stately looking buildings surrounded by wide lawns, pictures of students talking to each other over cups of coffee, and students reading books under trees.  I looked at all the pictures carefully.  Really carefully.

 

I especially looked at all the pictures with girls in them.  And towards the back of the catalog I finally I found her.  Janice Winter.  It had to be her.  The picture showed some cheerleaders at a football game.  They wore fluffy sweaters with an "O" across the front and really short skirts and they were doing the splits down on the grass in front of the crowd, holding pompoms up in the air.  Because they were doing those splits you could see almost all the way up their legs.  And the girl second from the left, the one with the biggest smile and holding her pompoms highest, for sure, that was Janice Winter.

 

Wow!

 

* * *

 

It turned out my father actually approved my decision to apply to the University of Oregon.  He always thought going locally to the University of Iowa was a stupid, boring idea.  He was an artist and stayed at home all day and painted in his studio out in the barn and said a son of his ought to get as far away from home as possible.  My mother wasn't quite so sure.  But my father said, "Christ, when's the boy going to learn something about life?"

 

Of course, I didn't tell them—especially my father—my real reason for wanting to switch to the University of Oregon.  That was a secret.  A secret between me and Janice Winter.  I was sure she hadn't told anyone, and I wasn't going to tell anyone else, either.  Not for the whole world.

 

I wrote her lots of letters that spring.  Maybe fifteen, maybe twenty letters.  After I came home from school I would go to my room and lock the door and listen to the noises in the house to make sure that my mother wasn't coming upstairs, and I would start to write.  At first I didn't know how to begin the letters.  Should I say, "Dear Janice?"  That just didn't seem special enough.  You wrote that for ordinary people.  Like your aunt.  "Dear Aunt Betty."  On the other hand, I didn't think I could write, "Dearest Janice."  Or even, "My dearest Janice."  Or, "My darling," or "My darling Janice."  Since we hadn't exchanged letters yet, I thought I had to be a bit careful.  I couldn't start out too suddenly.  Finally I decided on "Janice."  That seemed more personal without the "dear" in front of it, but not too personal.

 

I also couldn't figure out how to close the letter.  Obviously I couldn't write, "Yours truly," or "Sincerely."  That sounded like a business letter.  Even "Best," or "Regards" sounded too formal.  But then I couldn't go all the way and sign it, "with everlasting love," or "yours in my heart forever."  So I decided to be safe and just sign it with, "Always."

 

I wrote out the addresses very carefully so there couldn't be any possible mistake in delivery.

 

                                    Miss Janice Winter

                                    Delta Delta Delta Sorority

                                    University of Oregon

                                    Eugene, Oregon

  

And then I always placed the letters in the envelopes in a special way so that when she opened the letter she would see my name first.

 

One time I even got as far as almost mailing a letter.  I put a stamp on the envelope and walked all the way to the mailbox at the end of our lane, but at the last moment I just couldn't do it.  After that, all the letters stayed in the corner my room in a box under my dirty clothes basket.

 

Well, except for one time when I did actually write her.  But not a letter.  Just a post card.

 

A big brown envelope arrived in the mail from the Director of Admissions at the University of Oregon telling me how delighted he was to inform me that the Admissions Committee had voted to accept me as a freshman in the fall semester and how certain he was that I would enjoy my experience at one of the country's leading institutions of higher education.  The envelope contained lots of other information about when I was to arrive, where I was to live, and the various freshman orientation activities.

 

Without thinking about it, I found a post card on my mother's desk and wrote this to Janice Winter:

Janice,

 

Just received an acceptance from The University of Oregon so will be arriving in Eugene for the fall semester.  Looking forward to seeing you there.

 

    Always,

 

        Casey Jensen

I put my return address on the card and went up the end of the lane and dropped the card in the mailbox.

 

* * *

 

One day I came back from school and my mother said, "Letter for you."

 

I went to the dining room table where my mother always laid out the mail, and there, next to the pile for my father, was a letter for me.  Only it was in a special kind of envelope, pink, and when I picked it up it had a certain fragrance, like roses.  In the upper left hand corner I saw the return address: 

Delta Delta Delta Sorority

University of Oregon

Eugene, Oregon

Well, of course I didn't read the letter right there in the dining room.  Not with my mother so nearby in the kitchen.  I went up to my room, closed the door and locked it.  Then I listened, and when I was sure my mother wasn't coming up the stairs, I lay down on my bed, readjusted the pillows, broke the seal on the envelope and lifted the letter out.  It was also pink and smelled of roses.  It said:

Dear Casey,

 

Great!  Good news.  Best decision you ever made.  Look me up when you get here.

 

       Love,

 

           Janice

I held the letter in my hands and kept looking at it.  I looked at it for a long time and read it over and over.  She had signed it, "Love."


Wow!

* * *

 

Late in the afternoon in the early fall of 1950 my parents saw me off on the Union Pacific's "City of Portland" in Cedar Rapids.  The train rolled through the night and in the morning I looked through the windows and saw the plains of Wyoming stretching away.  By evening the train wound its way through some canyons somewhere in Idaho, and the next morning it ran along the wide Columbia River and on into Portland.

 

According to the timetable my father had given me I was supposed to change in Portland from the "City of Portland" to the Southern Pacific's "Coast Daylight" for the trip south to Eugene.  But the train arrived in Portland three hours late and so I had to take a taxi over to the Greyhound station and catch a bus instead.

 

I got a seat near the back of the bus next to the window and pulled out the big envelope from The Director of Admissions at the University of Oregon.  That's where I kept the pink letter from Janice Winter.  I was just opening it up to read what she said again when this big guy, muscles all over him, wearing jeans, a big silver buckle on his belt and a T-shirt rolled up over his biceps, came down the aisle.  He looked at the seat next to me and decided to sit there.

 

"Hey, man," he said, and slung his bag up on the rack above the seats.  When he sat down I had to readjust myself toward the window.

 

"How ya' doing?" he said as he pulled a magazine out of his hip pocket.  It was one of those magazines on football and he bent his head down and began to study it.

 

But as he sat down I had seen the front of his T-shirt.  It said, "Property of the Dept. of Athletics," and then in smaller letters, "The University of Oregon."

 

"Excuse me," I said to him.  "Are you going down to the university?"

 

"What?" he said.  He pulled his eyes away from the magazine.

 

"The University of Oregon."

 

"Yeah."

 

"So am I."

 

I told him I was going to be a freshman and that I was coming all the way from Iowa and that I had already been on the train for a day and a half, actually two nights and one day, and that I was supposed to have taken the "Coast Daylight" for the trip down to Eugene, but that train had been late, so here I was on the bus.

 

"That a fact?" he said.

 

"My name's Casey Jensen," I said, and held out my hand.

 

"Zeckendorf," he said, barely shaking my hand.

 

"And where are you from . . . ."  I realized he hadn't told me his first name.

 

"Look, pal, if you don't mind."  He indicated the magazine on his lap.

 

"Oh, sure.  Sorry."

 

My seatmate bent his head down over the magazine again and I looked out the window.  The fields on either side of the road were different from where I came from in Iowa, smaller, for one thing, and more oats and alfalfa and even patches of fruit trees.  I didn't see any corn at all.  Also not too far away you could see big hills, almost like mountains.  You never saw anything like that in Iowa.

 

We stopped in a number of towns, places like Oregon City, Woodburn, Salem, Albany, Corvallis, and then finally, later in the afternoon, Eugene.

 

"See, ya', pal," said my seatmate pulling his bag down off the baggage rack.

 

I had to wait for my own bags out at the side of the bus.  Then I carried them out in front of the station where I told a taxi driver to take me to Morton Hall.  That was the place I was supposed to live with a lot of other freshmen.

 

The trip in the taxi took about ten minutes.

 

"Hey!" said a red-haired young man with a crew cut as I got out of the taxi.  "Welcome to the land of the Ducks."

 

He came over and shook my hand.  He had a big paper sign, "HI THERE!" pasted on the front of his shirt.

 

"Name's Benny Potter.  Bean, to my friends."

 

"Casey Jensen," I said.

 

He had this cart with wire mesh sides and he started loading my suitcases onto it.

 

"You come with me, Jensen.  You know which room you're in?"

 

"One hundred fifteen," I said.

 

We both started pulling the cart down the sidewalk to the entrance of Morton Hall.

 

"Now, Jensen," he said as soon as we got the cart going down the hallway, "we've got an orientation meeting right down the hall in the main lounge at 7:00 tonight.  You be there.  Meet your fellow Ducks."

 

"Where's the Delta Delta Delta Sorority?" I said.

 

We were right in front of room 115.

 

"Tri Delt?"

 

"My sister wants me to look up a friend of hers," I lied.  Of course, I didn't even have a sister.

 

"Tri Delt!  Yeah, man, you've got friends in the right places."

 

He explained how to get there and after I had unpacked my bags I walked down the street in the direction he had showed me.  First there were the other dorm buildings, buildings that looked just like Morton, big red brick buildings with parking lots on both sides.  Past the dorms, the fraternity and sorority houses started.  Totally different.  For one thing they were houses, not buildings.  And big houses. Like the mansions you could see out in the richer parts of Cedar Rapids, the ones with big porches and lots of columns.  Out on the front lawns of the fraternity houses the guys were tossing footballs around, and lots of girls were watching the guys.

 

"Excuse me,” I said to two girls coming towards me on the sidewalk, "could you tell me where the Tri Delt House is?"

 

"Right there," said one of the girls.

 

She pointed across the street.

 

I looked at it, a big white house up on a rise with a winding sidewalk going to the front door.  Unlike the fraternity houses, it had a landscaped front lawn with flowers and bushes.

 

"Thanks," I said to the girls.

 

"Hey," one of them said.

 

I almost kept walking down the street right past the Tri Delt house.  I told myself that first I should see the campus.  There would be plenty of time later to go to the Tri Delt House.  And, anyway, Janice Winter might not be there.

 

But the two girls in front of the fraternity house were looking at me, so I crossed the street and started up the winding sidewalk to the front porch. It also had lots of columns.

 

But at the door I didn't know what I was to do.  Should I knock or ring a bell, or what?

 

Just as I was thinking about what to do, this guy with blond hair combed straight back and wearing a blue blazer, really pressed white pants and some kind of yellow scarf flung around his neck came loping up the sidewalk.  He brushed past me and pushed a button beside the front door, and right away the door opened and a girl stood there.

 

"Oh, hi, John," she said to the guy.

 

"Hi, hon," he said to her.

 

"She's been waiting for you, John."

 

"Has she, hon?"

 

"All day long, John.  I'll get her."

 

"Thanks, hon."

 

And the girl went back into the house.

 

"Excuse me . . . ," I said to him.

 

Just then the door opened and Janice Winter flung herself out of the door and into this guy's arms.  He whirled her around.

 

"Doll," he said.

 

"Sweetheart!" she cried.

 

I walked back down the sidewalk and past the fraternity and sorority houses.  When I got to my room at Morton I carried my suitcases down the hall and started along the street away from the University.  It was already getting dark outside. I walked first through a regular neighborhood with lots of trees and houses, then I must have gotten closer to the center of town because the houses got smaller and closer and closer together.

 

Out in front of one house I saw a sign, "Rooms for Rent."  I rang the bell and a lady came to the door.

 

"Yes?" she said.

 

I told her I was looking for a room.

 

"Well," she said, "it just so happens that I have a very nice room."

 

I followed her upstairs and down to the end of the hall towards the back.

 

"It's a very quiet room," she said turning on the light.  "Good for a serious student like you.  And look at this wonderful desk."

 

She pointed out a very big, probably oak desk which sat over to the side.

 

"And there's even a little balcony."

 

She opened a window-door at the back and showed me.  Well, it wasn't a real balcony, more just a place to stand in case you had to get on the fire escape ladder which led towards a courtyard below.  The buildings surrounded the courtyard on all sides.

 

"To tell you the honest truth, you're very lucky," she said.  "This room's the nicest room I have."

 

"Good," I said.  “I’ll take it.”

 

We settled on the price and I carried my bags upstairs and unpacked.  In particular I got out a pad of paper and laid it out in front of the desk.  I put a pencil beside the pad of paper.

 

I locked the door to my room and changed into my pajamas.  Then I went over to the desk, took the pencil and started to write a note to my parents explaining why I had decided I had to do away with my life.  Some people were naturally lucky, I wrote, and some people were not.  They had been good parents.  So my decision had nothing to do with them.  But I had discovered I was one of those people to whom great misfortunes happened.  I did not want to go through the rest of life suffering further misfortunes.  I signed the note, "Your dutiful son."

 

Then I wrote out a note to Janice Winter telling her how much I loved her.  How I had always, always loved her.  But that I understood she loved another man and that I forgave her.  I wished her all the happiness with him in the rest of her life.  I signed it, "Always forever, forever yours."

 

I went out on the little balcony.  It was cold outside and since I was only in my pajamas, I began to shiver.  But that didn't make any difference.  Not anymore.  Not small things like that.  I looked up into the stars.  Millions of them.  Our galaxy, and beyond that, countless other galaxies—in the cold firmament.  Soon I would merge with their eternity.

 

A light came on in a window on the ground floor of a building just across the courtyard from me.  I looked and saw a woman in a skirt and sweater cross my view, then re-cross, and cross again.  Each time she crossed, she had less clothing on.  First her sweater was off, then her skirt.  Then I didn't see her anymore.  I figured she was taking off the other things, you know what I mean.  But I couldn't see.

 

So I leaned way out trying to get a better view.  I still couldn't see anything, so I leaned out further.  And that's when I started to fall.  I grabbed hold of the fire escape ladder, and it swung down with me, coming to a stop with me still off the ground.

 

I hung on as long as I could, and then dropped.

 

It was like a hammer hit the bottom of my foot.  I half-tipped over trying to get up, and when I started to walk, I half-tipped over again.  I could only hop.  And there didn't seem to be any way out of this courtyard.  It was like I was in a prison yard.  By now the fire escape ladder on my building had swung back up to its original position.  And, what was almost worse, I was really, really beginning to shiver.

 

So I did the only thing I could think of.  I hopped over to the lighted window and knocked on the windowpane.  Nothing happened, and I knocked again.

 

This time the woman came over and looked out.  She was wearing a bathrobe.

 

"I need help," I said to her through the glass.

 

She pulled the window up.

 

"Well, and what hath God wrought?"

 

She said this in a funny kind of accent that I knew wasn't American.  She seemed to be about 35 years old, had short black hair, dark skin, and, for a woman, almost bushy eyebrows.

 

I explained what had happened, how I had fallen off the balcony and I couldn't really put all my weight on one leg and I was really cold.  I left out the stuff about watching her undress.

 

"Then we'd better get you inside right away," she said in that same funny kind of accent.  "Come on, then."

 

She helped pull me through the window and got me down on the other side.  I hopped over to a chair and sat down.

 

"You must be cold," she said closing the window.  She had seen me shivering.

 

"I am."

 

"Well, let me get you something."

 

She went into another room and came back with a big woolen shirt.

 

"Here," she said, "I think you'll feel better if you put this on."

 

I had been looking around.  This certainly wasn't any ordinary apartment.  It seemed more like my father's studio out in the barn back home, paintings everywhere, on the walls, leaned up against chairs, attached to different easels, and trays of oil paints and cans holding different length brushes sticking out in all directions.  But none of these paintings looked like my father's.  Not at all.  He did landscapes, mostly.  All these paintings were of nudes.  You know, naked women.

 

She saw me looking at the paintings.

 

"I'm a graduate assistant at the University," she said.  "In the Art Department."

 

"The University?"

 

"And you?"

 

"I'm a freshman.  I just got in today.  From Iowa.  And my father's a painter, too.  Maybe you've heard of him.  Chester Jensen?"

 

"No," she said, "I don't think I have."

 

"He's very well known where I come from."

 

"Are you all right?" she said.  "Shouldn't we look at your leg?"

 

"Oh, it's fine now."

 

"I think we should have a look."

 

So I rolled up my pajama leg and she dropped down on her knees, took my leg in her hands and felt different places.  I could smell some scent coming from her skin—maybe lemon.

 

"It's beginning to swell," she said.

 

"I think it was just a bad bump."

 

But she was looking out her window.  Although she still had her hands around my leg.

 

"Is that your room?  Up there?"

 

"Yes."

 

"And you were out on the balcony?"

 

"Yes."

 

"And were you out there when I came in."

 

"Yes."

 

"And you saw me after I turned on the light?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Oh, my goodness," she said.

 

She stood up, walked back across the room, sat down on a sofa, reached over for a pack of cigarettes, pulled one out and lit it.  Only it wasn't an ordinary cigarette, but long and dark, like a slender cigar.

 

She took a pull, held the smoke inside her, then let it out.

 

"Well," she said, "what are you going to do now?  With that swelling."

 

"Maybe we can call my landlady."

 

"Do you know her number?"

 

"No."

 

She kept smoking her dark cigarette and looking at me.

 

"Are you hungry?" she said.  "Do you want something to eat?"

 

"No," I said, "I'm okay.”

 

"When did you last eat?"

 

"Well, actually, this morning in the train."

 

"I thought so," she said.  "How does spaghetti sound?  With a special sauce?"

 

"Oh, you needn't bother."

 

"It's no bother."

 

She got up and went out into the kitchen and I heard her doing things out there.  I felt my leg and my foot, and she was right:  It was swelling more.

 

After a while she came back from the kitchen, sat down opposite me on the sofa, pulled out another of those long, dark cigarettes and lit it.  She took a pull, held the smoke inside her, then let it out.

 

"Look," she said, "of course, you understand this is completely your choice.  But I can't help being a little worried about you.  That leg.  You never know about these things.  So if you want you can sleep out here on this sofa.  Then if things take a turn for the worse during the night I can get you to the hospital.”

 

“You mean, not go back to my room?”

 

“That's up to you . . .”

 

I didn’t know what to say.

 

“You can think about it,” she said, getting up and going into the kitchen.

 

Her name turned out to be Antonia Choquette.  And she was actually 39 years old, not 35.  And, like I suspected, she wasn't American at all.  She had been born in Egypt, but was an Italian citizen, and she wanted to go to Paris to live and paint as soon as she could.

  

She was a good cook, too.  The sauce was great.  We even had a glass of wine with our meal, and after the meal, more glasses of wine.  She told me it was very good red wine and said that she kept wine like that for special occasions.  And she said that this actually had turned out to be a special occasion.  My dropping in on her like I had.

 

Well, that's it.  End of story.  Sorry.  But that's as much as I'm going to tell.  About the rest of what happened.  That night.  Although there sure is a lot more I could tell.

 

 

But I'll say this.  By the time the sun came up and Antonia Choquette had made me coffee and we were sitting around and I was wearing her bathrobe, the swelling had gone down and my leg was just fine.

 

And I was no longer in love with Janice Winter.

 

Wow!

 

 

 

Karl Harshbarger has had over 60 publications of his stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and Prairie Schooner.  Two of his stories have been selected for the list of  “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and eleven of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  He has finished two novels, An Addison Man and Tuckman Hill, and is working on two others.  He lives with his wife in Germany.