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Wonderland Creek

Wonderland Creek

by Lynn Austin


Learn More | Meet Lynn Austin
If my life were a book, no one would read it. People would say it was too boring, too predictable. A story told a million times. But I was perfectly content with my life—that is, until the pages of my story were ripped out before I had a chance to live happily ever after.

The end came, appropriately enough, at a funeral. Not my own funeral—I’m only twenty-two years old—but Elmer Watson’s funeral. He was a kindly old gentleman who patronized the public library here in Blue Island, Illinois, where I have worked as a librarian for the past year and a half. I knew Mr. Watson—or I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I knew his taste in books and magazines—and I thought very highly of him because of his reading preferences.

When I heard that his funeral would be held that day, I walked to the funeral parlor after work and took a seat in the back row by myself. My father, Reverend Horace Ripley, conducted the service. But first an entire host of Mr. Watson’s boring relatives—long-lost cousins, sons, nephews, and in-laws—decided to get up and tell long-winded stories about how Elmer had once walked to the store with them, or bought a horse from them, or some such inane piece of history. None of these people could tell a decent story to save his life. I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was yawning.

As the dreary eulogies dragged on and on, I pulled a book from my bag and began to read. I thought I was being quite subtle about it, glancing up every now and then, and nodding in sympathy as another one of Mr. Watson’s fine character traits was eulogized. I could have added that he always returned his books to the library on time, but why prolong the service?

That’s when my boyfriend, Gordon T. Walters, son and grandson of the funeral directors, tiptoed up behind me and slipped into the chair beside mine. I quickly finished reading the paragraph and stuck a bookmark in place before closing the book.

I expected Gordon to reach for my hand, but he didn’t. He sat so stiffly beside me, all buttoned up in his dour black suit, that he might have been a corpse like poor Mr. Watson. I looked up at Gordon and smiled, but he gave me a funereal frown and shook his head. I hadn’t realized that he knew Elmer Watson, but why else would he act so somber? When the service finally ended and we stepped outside through a side door, away from the other mourners, I discovered the reason.

“You were reading a book during a funeral?” he asked as if horrified. “Alice, how could you?”

“Well . . . it was a very good book,” I said with a little shrug. “I couldn’t help myself. I needed to find out what happened to the heroine.”

“What difference does it make what happens in a stupid book? It isn’t real. It’s a made-up story. But a funeral, Alice—a funeral is real life!” He was gesturing wildly, as if unable to convey his outrage with mere words. I reached for his hand, but he wouldn’t let me take it. We stood in a beam of weak February sunlight outside the funeral parlor where Gordon lived and worked, and we were an oddly mismatched couple—Gordon tall and dark-haired, myself, short and blond. Patches of snow dotted the grass and lay in dirty mounds around the parking lot as black-clothed mourners climbed into their cars for the trip to the cemetery. Mr. Walters sometimes needed Gordon to drive the hearse, but not today. Most of the time Gordon worked in the office, ordering coffins and collecting receipts and paying bills.

“I’m sorry,” I told him, “but when a book is as well-written as this one is, it seems just like real life to me and I—”

“But reading at a funeral? This was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Elmer Watson will never be buried again.”

“I certainly hope not,” I muttered beneath my breath. “Anyway, I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded. He used to come into the library all the time to check out books. He was a very nice man.”

“You could have shown more respect for his family.”

“They couldn’t even see me. I was sitting in the last row.” I didn’t understand Gordon’s outrage or why he was making such a big issue of this. “Come on,” I said, taking his arm. “Walk me home.”

“No.” He peeled my hand away. “Why did you come to the funeral in the first place if you weren’t going to pay your respects? And you weren’t very respectful, Alice. If you wanted to read your stupid book, you should have stayed home.”

I had been trying to make light of the incident until now because I honestly couldn’t see why it bothered him so much. His unreasonable behavior made me defensive. “I didn’t plan on reading—you make me sound like such a horrible person. But I started the chapter during my lunch break at work, and then I had to stop right in the middle of it when my hour was up. All afternoon I’ve been dying—pardon the expression—to find out what happened. So when the eulogies went on and on and I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters, I decided to take just a tiny peek and . . . and how was I supposed to know that I would get pulled back into the story again? It’s a wonderful book, Gordon.”

He didn’t seem to hear a word I said. He continued to glare at me with the solemn gaze perfected by his forefathers and immortalized in their portraits, now hanging in the mortuary’s entrance hall. “I’ve been to hundreds of funerals,” he said, which was no exaggeration since he’d been born in the apartment above the funeral parlor. “But I’ve never seen anyone reading a book during a memorial service.” He was upset. I had to take this more seriously.

“Again, I’m sorry, Gordon. From now on I will eschew reading novels during funerals.”

“You’ll . . . what? You’ll chew . . . what?”

“I said, I will eschew reading. It means to abstain from or avoid something.” I had been waiting for an opportunity to use the word eschew after discovering it in my favorite literary journal and looking up the meaning. It had such a refined, tasteful sound to it—a wrinkle-your-nose, tut-tut quality. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try it out. How could I have known that the word would further infuriate Gordon?

“Confound it, Alice! Sometimes you act like you think you’re better than everyone else.”

“Wait. Are you calling me pretentious?”

“Maybe . . . if I knew what it meant. Does it mean snooty?”

“Listen, I can’t help it if I have a broad vocabulary. I acquired it from reading.”

“Did you ever stop to think that maybe you read too much?”

“That’s absurd,” I said with a little laugh. “Nobody can read too much. That’s like saying someone breathes too much.”

He sighed. His shoulders sagged. He shook his head. I thought he was going to say, You’re right. Let’s forget it. But he didn’t.

“I can’t do this anymore, Alice.”

“Do what?”

“Fight about stupid things like books and big words. You live in a different world than I do. Everything you talk about comes from a book, not real life. I want a girl who has both feet on the ground. And more important, one whose nose isn’t stuck in a book all day.”

“I work in a library,” I told him. “Books are my livelihood, just like funerals are your livelihood. Do I complain because you’re surrounded by caskets and corpses all day?”

Gordon tipped his hat to a group of mourners as they walked past us on the way to their cars. When they were gone, he turned to me and said, “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

“What?” I felt a twinge of panic. We’d had arguments before, but this one had gone too far. “Are you mad because I use words you don’t understand or because I couldn’t help reading just a teensy bit during the boring part of a funeral?”

“Both. We don’t have anything in common.”

“But . . . but we’ve been dating for nearly a year and—” I stopped before blurting out that everyone considered us a couple or that our parents expected us to marry.

“The only thing you ever want to talk about is the plot of the latest book you’re reading. I know more about your favorite characters than I do about you. And now I find out that you’d rather read about some made-up person than listen to the final tributes for a real man. You live in a dream world, Alice, not this one.”

“I do not!”

“Remember the time you were reading a book instead of watching where you were going and you walked into a lamppost? You ended up with a lump on your forehead the size of a doorknob. You were nearly knocked out cold.”

“That wasn’t my fault. I was trying to finish the book on my way to work because it was due back at the library that day. There was a long waiting list for it. I’m not the only person who likes to read, you know.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t step in front of a streetcar.” He paused to offer his arm to an elderly woman, helping her to her car before returning to me. “And remember how you set your mother’s kitchen on fire because you were trying to read and fry chicken at the same time?”

“A dish towel. I set a dish towel on fire.” I laughed as I tried to make light of it but Gordon stared me down, forcing me to admit the truth. “Okay . . . I suppose the fire did spread to the kitchen curtains—but that could have happened to anyone.”

“I give up.” He lifted his palms in defeat, then let them fall, slapping against his thighs.

“So you’ll forgive me for reading at the funeral?” I asked, standing very close to him, looking up at him. “I only read a chapter—maybe a chapter and a half.”

“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

“Gordon!”

“I’m sorry.” He turned away.

I couldn’t believe it. I sputtered for something to say. “Well! If that’s the way you feel, then good! I feel the same way!” I spoke with an air of triumph, but it was an act. With my fair complexion, my cheeks easily betrayed my emotions and they burned now with humiliation. How dare he break up with me?

I strode the three blocks home in a rage, my bag with the troublesome book bumping against my side. I could hear my mother puttering around in the kitchen and I smelled onions sautéing, but I marched up the stairs to my room and closed the door. Mother no longer asked me to help her cook.

Just to spite Gordon, I sat down on my bed and opened the book, continuing where I had left off during the funeral. My anger had a chance to cool as I lost myself in someone else’s drama for the next hour or so. In the end, the hero saved the heroine and the story ended happily ever after. I closed the book with a sigh of contentment. A moment later my father arrived home and Mother called us to dinner.

I didn’t mention the argument to my parents. I was certain that Gordon would get over it in a day or two. Besides, I couldn’t imagine asking them for advice. They seemed perfectly suited to each other and never argued. I also had a feeling that Mother would take Gordon’s side. She still was upset with me for starting the fire. She’d nearly had a fit during those first few panicked moments as she’d tried to douse the oily flames and keep them from spreading. And when the next-door neighbor saw the smoke pouring from the window and called the fire department, Mother had been mortified. Her reputation as a cook had been sullied. That was my word, not hers—but a good one, I thought. Besmirched would have described her reputation nicely, too.

“You’re very quiet tonight,” Mother said as we did the supper dishes together. I was drying them with one of the new dish towels she’d been forced to buy. We had ruined several of them trying to beat out the flames. Mother had been angry about the towels, too: “Don’t you know that this country is in a depression, Alice? No one has money to spare for new household goods, including our family. Your father gives away every spare cent we have to the poor parishioners in his church, and here you are wasting good money.”

“Gordon and I had a fight,” I told her. “That’s why I’m so quiet. He hurt my feelings. He said that I read too much, and he accused me of living in a dream world.”

“Hmm. Imagine that.” I saw her roll her eyes. She was supposed to be consoling me, not taking Gordon’s side. I wanted a poultice lovingly applied over my aching heart, not sarcasm. Well, my heart wasn’t really aching, yet. I didn’t believe that Gordon had meant what he’d said.

I decided to walk next door after Mother and I finished the dishes to see my best friend, Freddy Fiore. Her real name was Frederica, like a princess in an Italian love story, but everyone called her Freddy. We had attended school together since first grade, and after graduating from high school we enrolled in the Cook County Normal School to become teachers. Neither of us had a steady boyfriend back then or any marriage prospects, so we decided to continue our education.

Freddy turned out to be a marvelous teacher—the kind that every child remembers fondly for the rest of her life. My teaching career proved disastrous. I quickly discovered that I was not at all suited to the profession with my “dreamy” personality and a soft-spoken voice. The students ignored me completely. Besides, I’m only five-feet-two-inches tall and many of the boys in the one-room schoolhouse where I practiced teaching towered over me, running roughshod over all of my attempts to maintain order.

My friend Freddy, who is nearly as tall as Gordon, grew up in a household with four brothers and had no problem at all commanding respect. She received glowing recommendations and a job as a second grade teacher at our old elementary school. The
Normal School faculty delicately suggested that I eschew teaching and recommended me for a position at our town’s public library. It was a perfect fit for me.

I knocked on Freddy’s back door, then let myself inside, as usual. She was in the living room, reading a book to her mother, who suffered from a mysterious muscle weakness. Freddy’s father had passed away a few years ago. I waited impatiently for Freddy to finish the chapter, my heart bursting to pour out my woes.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” I asked when she closed the book.

“Sure.” She found a radio station for her mother to listen to and we went out to the kitchen to sit at the table. Few people served tea or coffee during these hard economic times. I hadn’t wept over my breakup with Gordon, but this was Freddy, my warm, compassionate friend sitting across the table from me. My tears finally began to fall.

“Allie, what is it? What’s wrong?”

“Gordon broke up with me!”

“Why? What happened?”

“We had an argument, and he ended it by saying we shouldn’t see each other anymore.”

“He wasn’t serious, was he? You’ve had spats before and he’s gotten over them. Remember the time you kept calling him by the wrong name? It was the name of the hero in the book you were reading, wasn’t it?”

“That was an honest mistake. Anyone could have made it.”

Freddy arched one eyebrow at me. “I thought Gordon displayed uncommon patience.”

“I guess so . . . But he wasn’t very patient today. He brought up the incident with the fire. And the time I nearly got a concussion from walking into a lamppost.” I pulled my handkerchief from my sleeve and dabbed my eyes. “He shouldn’t hold all these things against me. Aren’t we supposed to forgive and forget?”

“Do you want me to go over to the funeral home and talk to him?” Freddy asked. I could always count on her to come to my rescue.

“Would you?”

“Sure. When would be a good time?”

“Tonight. I’ll stay with your mother, if you want me to. Gordon doesn’t have any wakes scheduled tonight so he and I were supposed to see a movie, but then he . . . he broke up with me!” I ended with a sob. Freddy squeezed my hand, then stood and put on her coat.

“I’ll do my best.”

She was gone for nearly three hours. Her mother had fallen asleep in the rocking chair by the time Freddy returned home, but I didn’t know if I should help her to bed or not. I never knew how to help ailing people.

“What took so long?” I asked the moment Freddy stepped through the door. “What did Gordon say?” Once again we went into the kitchen to talk.

“Gordon didn’t want to talk about you at all, at first. I think he’s pretty mad. He was just leaving for the movie theater by himself when I got to the funeral parlor, so I asked him if I could tag along. I figured if I spent a little time with him, maybe he’d talk about you afterward.”

“Good idea. So you went to the movies with him?”

“Well, first he made me promise that I wouldn’t cause a scene in the theater like you did last week.”

“See? He blows everything out of proportion. I didn’t cause a scene. I don’t know why the usher asked us to leave.”

“Gordon said it was because you started talking very loudly in the middle of the movie, saying that it wasn’t at all like the original book, and when everyone started shushing you—including Gordon—the usher got involved. Gordon is still mad because he didn’t get to see how the film ended.”

“He didn’t need to see the end. I told him how the book ended and it was so much better than the movie. They changed everything in the movie, including the hero’s motivation. Can you imagine? That movie was such a travesty that I couldn’t help getting upset.”

“Well, Gordon is still upset about it, too. But he said the last straw was seeing you reading a book at Elmer Watson’s funeral.”

“Poor Mr. Watson. He always loved National Geographic magazines. I know he wouldn’t have minded at all that I read a novel at his funeral. The eulogies did go on and on.”

Freddy reached across the table to take both of my hands. “The thing is—and please understand that I’m on your side, Allie. We’ve been best friends forever, you know that. But the way Gordon explained it as we walked home . . . well, he just isn’t sure that things are going to work out for the two of you. He and his family are in the funeral parlor business. And that means you’ll be in the business, too, if he asks you to marry him.”

“We aren’t even engaged, yet.”

“I know. But he understands all of the unspoken rules in the funeral trade, and he says that you crossed a line. Wouldn’t you be upset if someone came into your library and did something that you thought was disrespectful?”

“You mean like folding down the corner of the page instead of using a bookmark?”

“I don’t think the two would be quite the same . . . at least not in Gordon’s mind.”

“Okay. You can tell him that from now on, I promise I will never read a book at a funeral for as long as I live. Will that make him happy?”

“I don’t know . . . He says you don’t seem very sympathetic to people’s feelings during their time of grief.”

“Just because I read one measly chapter at a funeral?”

Freddy released my hands. She looked uncomfortable, as if the wooden chair had splinters. “It wasn’t only that. He told me about your book scheme. How you wanted him to ask the families of the deceased to donate their loved ones’ books to your Kentucky
Project when they came in to arrange a funeral.”

“Is that so unreasonable? I’m sure most people would be happy to do it.” I had read an article in Life magazine that told how people in the backwoods of Kentucky needed books and magazines to read. When I showed it to the head librarian, she let me put a collection box near the check-out desk for patrons who wanted to donate their used books. “Seriously, Freddy. Why not collect them at the funeral parlor, too? Do you think that’s such a bad idea?”

“I have to tell you the truth, Allie—it’s a terrible idea.”

“Why?”

“When my father died, it was hard enough to cope with my grief and try to plan a nice funeral. It was much too early to think about giving away his books.”

“But those people in Kentucky have nothing to read. Can you imagine such a horrible life? Who needs books after they’re dead? Why not give them away so they can help living people?”

“I know, I know. But it’s just a little . . . insensitive . . . to ask someone about it when they’re planning a funeral.”

“Mr. Watson loved maps,” I mused aloud. “He owned a wonderful atlas. If I had known he was about to die, I could have asked him ahead of time to donate his books in his will.”

Freddy cleared her throat. “Let’s get back to Gordon. I’m really sorry, but I don’t think I was able to change his mind. It sounded like he has been storing up all these grievances for quite some time.”

“Wait. Doesn’t he know it’s wrong to hold grudges? Did you tell him that?”

“It’s not a grudge, Allie. He said that when he started adding it all together, he began to realize that maybe you and he weren’t very well-suited for each other.”

Tears sprang to my eyes again. “He really means it? He’s really breaking up with me? For good?” Freddy nodded. “Can’t you do something to help me patch things up?” I begged.

“I can try again—if you’re sure that’s what you really want.”

“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t I want it? Gordon and I have been together for almost a year.”

“Gordon has some legitimate complaints that you’ll need to think about. Are you willing to stop reading so much in order to stay together? And I know you’ve complained about his faults, like the fact that he never reads anything at all, even the newspaper. These things would all have to be worked out. You’d have to make some compromises.”

“Why?”

“I’m told that’s what marriage is all about—being willing to make changes for the person you love. Suppose you had to choose between never reading again or losing Gordon. Which would you pick?”

“I could never give up reading!” The thought appalled me. “I love books, Freddy! Maybe I could agree not to bring books to the funeral parlor, but we’re talking about two entirely different kinds of love—my love of books and my love for Gordon. Don’t you love what you do? How could you choose between teaching or marriage?”

“If I met a man I loved, I would gladly give up teaching for him,” she said, pulling herself to her feet. “Listen, Allie. Go home and sleep on it. It’s late. Maybe Gordon will see things differently tomorrow.”

“Will you go back and talk to him again? I’ll stay with your mother tomorrow night, too.”

“Of course.”

I went home and got ready for bed, unable to imagine breaking up with Gordon. Everyone said that he was a real catch. He wasn’t particularly handsome, but he had a very good job, unaffected by the Depression. People continued to die whether the stock market crashed or soared.

Gordon and I had been together for so long that people in Blue Island thought of us as a couple. We attended library functions and picnics together, stood on Main Street and watched the Fourth of July parade together. I would be so embarrassed when everyone started whispering and speculating behind my back or asking me, Where’s Gordon? Why aren’t you with Gordon? What would I say?

And church! Everyone at my father’s church knew I was dating Gordon. He sat beside me every Sunday. How could I ever face the other parishioners or hold up my head again?

I had a hard time falling asleep that night. And to make matters worse, I had finished my book, and now I had nothing to read.


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