Off Keck Road

book cover


In December of her third year back, Bea received a change-of-address card from the ad agency she'd worked for in Chicago. The agency had moved to New York City, to an address on Madison Avenue!

This required a special session with June at Kaap's, where they resolved to plan a shopping spree in Milwaukee.

Bea had always wanted to live in New York City. She and June worked for hours on an appropriate card to send the woman who had been Bea's boss (bribing Peggy with dimes, one at a time, buying themselves the few minutes it took her to walk to the long cases at the front of the restaurant and select a candy).

The woman who had been Bea's boss had always liked the Green Bay side of her. At first, Bea had knitted only with her hands beneath her desk, but when the head of the firm caught her at it and complimented her garter stitches, she began to purl in the open. At her wildest, she'd stuck her hair up in a bun, with a Takuma bamboo circular needle. Her boss eventually worried, as Bea's mother had, about her personal life.

"How's your weekend?" she'd say. "Having fun? Good." At the office, there was a young assistant in the art department who stopped asking Bea to lunch after their meals turned out to be, well, only lunches. Married man, the boss decided, and didn't press it.

Bea and June wrote the note to her on a Green Bay postcard that showed the bridge over the Fox River lifting up in two parts as a tall boat went through.

Congratulatory but not fawning. Jaunty--with the implication she might soon be back on board, in New York. At the same time she mailed that card, Bea posted a check for a subscription to New York magazine.

After that was all over and Bea stopped waiting for a reply--No, they agreed, you don't really answer a congratulations note--June mentioned that they had lived in New York.

"When?" Bea asked, flabbergasted. Who was "we," anyway?

"With him. When we were married." June was always vague about her few years with her husband. Bea could only estimate how long they were married. She knew they had lived in Milwaukee for a while. She imagined a small aluminum house with a fenced-in yard. Now, it seemed, they had been to New York, too.

"Where did you live?"

"We lived, we lived on Madison Avenue," June said. She looked away in a vague, closing way that discouraged further questions.

Bea didn't believe her, not exactly.

Bea had the distinct impression that Madison Avenue was all businesses, not residence. The way she pictured it, it was a street lined with buildings, each a little different, each one housing an ad agency.

Because her mother was so concerned with romantics, Bea tried to forget altogether what wasn't there. But there had been flickers and glimmers that, in her solitude, passed from secrets to private shame. By now, she was willing to admit it. She was no good at love. There had been misunderstandings. But she was sure that if she'd told her mother about them, they would've seemed even worse. Mysteries. Perhaps even tragedy, or crime.

There had been an all-day outing with a young college professor, new to town from Saint Paul. He'd talked about his girlfriend, an elementary school teacher still back in Minnesota. He said he was waiting for the right time to "let her down."

Only at the end, he'd told Bea the real reason: Gigi, a halfwit who worked in her father's store, attached to the filling station outside Suamico. He'd taken Bea's hand and looked her in the eyes, then asked, "What do you think I should do?"

She couldn't remember anymore what she'd answered.

She told the story to June at Kaap's that December night, three years after it happened. Bea's double-pointed knitting needles chittered while they talked. She was using eight-ounce alpaca, dark gray.

June cleared away the shame with her answer. "The cad," she said. "But he was interested. Definitely. That was his way of feeling you out."

Telling June was like an excavation. An event.

June now was working as a teacher in the Brown County school system, and they began to share the gossip they learned at their respective jobs, breaking the rumors down to their component parts. They dissected troubled marriages with particular relish.

Bea's mother, who spent a good portion of her day on the telephone or at the bridge table, could sometimes contribute. They often met at her house in De Pere and Mrs. Maxwell would join in until her bedtime, which was only a little later than Peggy's.

June was always polite to Hazel. She asked her about bridge.

"I've played since 1927. I'm still no expert. I have no master points. If I get too good, I've got nobody to play with."

The two younger women felt that they could see Green Bay society, the way they could in fact see Green Bay topographically from Dr. and Mrs. Maxwell's front window, which offered a clear wide view of the river, with its beauty and barges, its columns of smoke and piles of sulfur and coal.

They shared an interest in fashion. When Bea got around to something, she would dig to the bottom of the subject. And clothes no longer daunted her. She had her own style, which required trips to Milwaukee and Chicago and packages arriving from stores in places like Dallas. If she saw a dress in a magazine, she'd just order it right then. Some worked; some needed to be returned, airmail. This at an age long after most women in Green Bay had given up on such things and gotten what Hazel's hairdresser, Rolf, called "mothercuts," and perms for ease.

Hazel had always admired her daughter's thoroughness, up to a point. But there was also something to looking fresh and cleverly stylish as a young woman, when it mattered. Later on, when you were married and had children, what did you care if your clothes weren't the latest?

Hazel's arthritis came and went. Some days, she felt like an invalid; on others her old self. The day after Bea replied to the change-of-address card, her mother was in bed again, so she went to the Press Gazette office and quit. She walked from there to the old courthouse, where Bill Alberts worked, and asked for a job. Once before, she'd asked him for a charity donation and he'd written her a large check. "How many dimes go into five hundred dollars?" he'd said.

Bill Alberts ran the biggest real estate company in town--with his left hand, as he liked to say. People said he was the first person in northern Wisconsin to understand the meaning of land. It was Bea's idea that as a real estate agent, she could spend more time with her mother. She could even take her along.

"Edith, put Miss Maxwell on the payroll," he shouted, from his desk, into the adjoining anteroom. "Sit down, sit down," he told her.

"Today? But I haven't even started the course to get my license."

He waved away her concern, then folded his hands and looked at her directly. "So tell me your plans. Will you stay in Green Bay?"

"Oh, I think so," she said. "I've been back now--what? Three years."

"I ask because we're the generation who will bring culture home to us. Green Bay, right here." He talked quite a bit with his hands. "Our parents all drove to Chicago or at least Milwaukee to hear music, see theater, shop, whatever they did." His hands chopped and flew.

Bea tried to think if her parents ever went to Milwaukee. They had not. Once, her mother's friend Lil got up a group to drive to Goshen, Indiana, to hear Marian Anderson sing. It was the old story. At the last minute, a child was born eight weeks early and Dr. Maxwell couldn't go. Hazel had gone anyway, but she'd had a bad time. She felt conspicuous because it was three other couples and her.

Bill Alberts wore a white shirt with French cuffs and suspenders. From his phonograph speakers, a man's low, raspy voice was half-singing, half-whispering things that might better be said in private. "But we'll change all that. My sisters moved away. Every one to a bigger city. Your sister's where? Minneapolis. You see, I want to bring the cities to us here."

Bill Alberts was someone Bea could've known growing up, but she just hadn't. He was older, in the same world as her parents but Jewish. Her father worked with his parents at the hospital. He apparently had known about her, though. He'd seen her picture in the paper, he said, at the Winter Ball, ice-skating on the frozen Fox River.

That would have been along with other girls from De Pere High, she reminded him. She knew the picture. They'd worn flared felt skirts and carried fur muffs.

"I don't remember others," he said.

He was not like Alexander Pray or any of his successors, all of whom looked, one way or another, the same.

He, too, had grown up in a large house by the river. He, too, had gone away to college and then come back. Bea wasn't sure how old he was. Older, definitely. But ten years or twenty? He was a man who probably had never been handsome, so it was hard to tell. He was short, five two or five three. He'd lost the majority of his hair long ago, certainly before Bea paid him any attention, eliminating some of the usual suspense of middle age. His baldness gave a certain nakedness to his features, so that no matter what angle you beheld him from, it was hard to see him as good-looking.

His hands were always moving, making fists or baskets in midair, his fingers snapping or drumming on the desktop. Dark against the cuffs, his wrists and hands were attractive.

Bea walked to her car, holding her keys out in front, with a light step.

She felt something--a yes-and-no feeling. Not like the something, but something else, new, an agitation like the scratchiness of wool in spring.

She found out that evening from her mother that Bill Alberts had been a bachelor in Green Bay for many years. He'd lived with his parents. Even after he finally bought his own place--the Kaap river mansion--he went home every night to his mother's table for supper.

"Until he married her," Hazel said.

Some years ago, Bill Alberts had married Marge Garsh, a local girl, the undertaker's daughter. "And I suppose then she cooked."

From the church, Bea's mother knew the lady who had been his childhood nanny. The old woman still went to iron his shirts every Tuesday and Thursday, but she wouldn't do a thing for the wife. "Doesn't like her," Bea's mother said, as if that made perfect sense.

Money had never been a problem for the Alberts family. His father was chief surgeon at the hospital and his mother was a doctor, too, an obstetrician. That would have been unusual, even scandalous, for a woman in her time in Green Bay to have four children and keep working except that they were Jewish. All they did was held to be in another category.

Bill Alberts himself had already made several other fortunes--ruining the city, his own father said. Bea's mother repeated that with a down-curved voice that contained a certain relish.

Bill's taste differed from his European parents', that was for sure. He had a sharp, flat American vision. Tract houses did not offend him, Bea knew, and his developments from the fifties were made of sound materials and planted with young trees. She golfed in a club that ended at the backyards of one of his subdivisions. They were cheerful houses, hard to tell whether rich or poor, and though small, they were somehow smart.

Thirty-five years later, when those trees were mature, most of the houses were still standing and in good repair.

But he didn't like to think of himself as a realtor. Everyone knew his passion was jazz music. In the thirties, some of the Big Bands had played Green Bay at the Ace of Spades, and apparently Bill's parents--the two doctors--had gone dancing. He himself played drums. For years, he'd bored anyone who would listen to his stories about trips to Chicago in the forties and fifties to hear the great bands at their peak. He'd bought himself a whole building downtown, the old Green Giant canning factory, to turn into a nightclub for his band.

Most evenings, he smoked a cigar in his office, music playing out the open windows: Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Jo Jones. At seven, he headed to dinner at a restaurant downtown before his own local band convened. They called themselves the Fox River Trotters. They all called him Little Jazz.

Rumor had it that there was no family life inside the stone house Bill Alberts owned on one of Green Bay's oldest and best streets. It had been the carefully tended home of the Kaaps, an elderly brother and sister who lived together for more than forty years and walked on the river path every afternoon at four.

"He runs around," Mrs. Maxwell said.


"I think so, sure. Yes."

But though they believed he was an unfaithful husband, Mrs. Maxwell and her friends were not sympathetic to Bill's wife. They said it was because Marge had let old Mabel Kaap's rose garden go to rack and ruin. Thank God she's not here to see it.

"They say Marge doesn't like music," Bea's mother said. "And you know him."

But it wasn't the roses, Bea understood, or music. Even though she'd grown up in De Pere and attended the same schools and the same church, Marge Garsh's father was the undertaker. She was a perfectly decent choice for Bill Alberts--she'd been a moderately popular girl, a candy striper in the hospital and then a cheerleader even though she was so much younger. It was not as if he'd married someone Polish.

Still, Marge Garsh was not immune to criticism from these women, as their own daughters were, as Bea knew herself to be. When Celia Howard, a daughter of the family who owned The Press Gazette and one of the paper mills, lost Kip Dannenford's grandmother's pink diamond swimming in Fish Creek, Bea's mother and all her friends just laughed.

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Excerpted from Off Keck Road by Mona Simpson. Copyright © 2000 by Mona Simpson. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.