The fresh light of the rising sun touched, and then travelled – losing as it travelled its first quality of morning – down the Golden Ears, down the mountains northeast of Burrard Inlet, down the Sleeping Beauty, down the Lions, and down the lesser slopes descending westwards to the Pacific Ocean, until the radiant sunrise deteriorated into mere flat day. Milkmen were up and about in Vancouver and some railway workers and street railway workers and some hospital attendants; but the phenomenon of sunrise, being only the prelude to another day, slid away unobserved by anybody.
Because Mortimer Johnson’s bedroom faced westwards and was darkened as much as possible, the sun had risen fairly high before Mort woke up. Then, because he had to get up some time or other, he got up. He got up quietly and gently pulled the grey blankets back again over the warm bed because he did not want to disturb his wife Myrtle who still slept. Mort emerged from bed in his underclothes and stood sleepily regarding the curved pile in the bed, which was Myrtle. He stretched and rubbed himself slowly over his stomach and sides and back and shoulders and arms. The feeling of the woollen combinations rubbing on his skin gave him a slow obscure pleasure. Mort’s angel, who usually woke at the same time as Mort (but sometimes awoke at night and plagued him to no purpose in dreams), stepped for a moment outside its domicile, also stretched, and then returned to its simple yet interesting spiritual or shall we say psychic quarters. Mort’s angel had some time ago found out that the insecurity of the quarters wherein it often rocked as in a rough mountainous sea before settling down again facing in a different direction, was due to a weakness in Mort’s potentially strong inner structure, but, as it had discovered that it could do nothing about this weakness, had rather given up.
A man’s angel, after a long residence within or around a man, knows its host (or charge) very well indeed; far better than you or I, who, looking, see perhaps only a stocky middle-aged man, strong but now flabby, frowsty at the moment but when his face has been washed and shaved and his hair parted on the side and brushed back (as it will be in an hour’s time), and his shirt and suit and socks and boots pulled on, and his hat put on, too, at a debonair angle, are justified in believing that this is Mr. Johnson who is coming to do the garden, and seems a very nice man and you hope you’ll get a little satisfaction at last. You are inclined to believe this, because Mort turns upon you his kind brown eyes and tells you that he is a gardener, that he doesn’t pretend to be a carpenter or a plumber or a mechanic, but one thing he can truthfully say is that he’s a gardener and that he loves gardening above all things in the world, and that he has a green thumb. Mort’s angel used to kick him a little when Mort said things like this; but the angel does not kick any more, because it – the angel – realizes that the two things Mort really loves are his wife Myrtle and himself – the first inconstantly and the second with a varying intensity that sometimes includes his fellowman in some vicarious way identified with himself; and that when Mort makes these statements (that he loves being a gardener, or a shepherd, or a plumber, or a horse-breaker, or a plasterer), he really means them, at the moment, and it often gives his interlocutor a great deal of pleasure and a sense of security, poor thing.
After Mortimer had looked at his wife as he continued to rub himself, his early morning thought arose, the first thought of each morning. Was Myrtle pleased last night and will she be pleased this morning when she wakes up, or am I in wrong again, because if she acts like she did yesterday, I’ll slug her. He then applied the usual solution to this important little puzzle and walked barefooted and picking up dust into the adjoining room which was kitchen and everything else, and struck a match and lighted the gas ring and put on the kettle for a cup of tea. When he had made the tea he put the things on a little tray the way Myrtle had taught him to do fifteen years ago, and then he brought the tray to the bedside and put it on the floor because everything else had something on it, and pulled up the blinds and let the morning in, but no air, and bent over Myrtle and poked her.
“Wake up, Myrt. Wake up, Queen,” he said in his pleasant hoarse voice that could sound so easy-going or so angry. “Here’s your tea, honey,” and he watched for the first raising of Myrtle’s heavy lids. One of these days if she doesn’t treat him good he certainly will slug her.
Myrtle was no beauty. She had once had a faint disdainful prettiness. Now she stretched herself like a thin cat in the bed. Her hair was both straight and frizzy. Her nose was thin and would some day be very thin. Her eyes, which she would soon disclose, were of pale indeterminate colour. She was a com plete mistress (or victim) of the volte-face, of the turnabout, and this dubious possession was one of the reasons for her control and enslavement of Mort. The other was her eyelids. When she slowly raises her heavy eyelids as she soon will, but not until she feels inclined to, you will see their power. Myrtle’s eyelids, and her small amused smile, which is not a turning-up but a turning-down of her lips, induce a sudden loss of self-confidence in the individual towards whom the look or non-look, the smile or non-smile, is directed. She can make you, or Mort, feel insecure and negligible, just by the extra quarter-inch of her dropped eyelids and by that amused small turned-down smile. It is not fair. If you should in your beauty, your new hat, and your recent tennis championship appear before Myrtle, she can by her special look and without saying a word, intimate to you and your friends that, for some reason obscure to them and to you but well known to her and to the rest of the world, she thinks very poorly of you. If your uncle, the great explorer from the Gobi Desert, accompanied by a Lama just flown over specially with affidavits from the Desert – if your uncle should arrive with distinctions thick upon him, Myrtle’s eyelids and her secret smile will set him down where your uncle belongs. If, more important still, you should have finished and hung out your sparkling wash for your husband and ten children before bottling two crates of peaches and running up before lunch that nice dress which you are wearing, Myrtle’s eyelids faintly flickering and dropping will discount this and leave you uneasy about something, you know not what. If your son, brilliant young University graduate and soldier that he is, should, so young, be elected to Parliament, Myrtle’s eyelids will say that she knows all about graft and politics, and you can’t tell her.
No wonder Myrtle controls and also aggravates her husband Mort Johnson. She is much more aggravating and less lovely than Mona Lisa of whom she has never heard, but from whom she is probably descended. There is only one person on whom the eyelids have no effect, and that is her aunt Mrs. Emblem. Aunty Emblem is able to make Myrtle feel foolish and inadequate any time she wants to. In fact, on Aunty Emblem, the eyelids work quite in reverse.
Well, Myrtle opened her eyes and slowly pulled herself up in bed a bit, and Mort gave her her tea, and then he went and made some breakfast and dressed and shaved and said goodbye and not to hurry and get up for anyone; and he put on his hat at the debonair angle that always gave him such an air, and started down the stairs clumping a good deal, and went out into the street feeling quite pleased with himself because Myrtle was in a good temper and because he had a new job that promised to be easy. He looked very nice as he walked, rolling almost sailor fashion, along Powell Street, and then to the street car. His face was square and pleasant, a bit soft round the jaws perhaps, his smile ready and easy when it came, his brown head and moustache with never a grey hair made him look ten years younger than his age, and his brown eyes that could be laughing, sullen and opaque, or furious – all very nice to look at.
When Mort had gone, Myrtle sat up and really looked about her. What she saw was their bedroom and because she was so accustomed to these two rooms (with sink) at the top of the house off Powell Street, she did not see that the room was dingy and needed cleaning; that it was not carpeted except by one small bed-side mat (which was the cause of daily and nightly outrage and something near madness to the two old men living below); that the bureau was littered with brush, pins, comb, Eno’s, face cream, hair, hairnets, powder, beads and old dust; that the blankets and flannelette sheets were unfresh; that there was no attempt at cheer or colour in the room; that, in short, everything was uniformly dingy and need not be so. She had, of course, her eyelids for a source of pride; but the queer thing was that Myrtle did not realize her eyelids qua eyelids – they were but the outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual conceit, and were her instrument; the fact that she was not clean was irrelevant to her scorn of other people, however clean they might be.
Myrtle’s angel had long since become a nervous and ineffectual creature because Myrtle’s various entities and impersonations were enough to keep any angel thin. Of all people, Myrtle loved herself in whatever guise she saw herself. If her parents had been alive, she might have loved them, too. If she had had children she might have loved them too since they would have been her children. She had Mort, and (and this comforted the angel a good deal) she really loved him in her own way. She reserved the licence to dislike him, to hate him even. For very irrational reasons she would end the day disliking Mort, even when she hadn’t seen him all day; because, perhaps, the butcher had said that so upstanding a man as Mort deserved the best steak in the shop, or because Aunty Emblem in her luscious fashion had said that there
was a man, if you like! Or even because his socks had gone at the toe, or because he was darn lazy, which he was, or for no reason at all. Then she knew herself wasted on this louse. But let her friend Irma Flask who lived three blocks away ask how many jobs it was Mort had had since Christmas, and say she pitied Myrtle she certainly did, and whether that was that souse Hansen she seen him with on Thursday, and what a wonderful provider her sister Ruby’s husband was – then Myrtle displayed Mort as the perfect husband, hers and none other, and let them that couldn’t keep their own husbands lay off of hers, whatever she had said about him fifteen minutes before.
“Well well well,” said Myrtle, “this won’t buy the child a frock.” And she got up and dressed and pulled the bedclothes over the bed, and did her face, and put on her hat, and went downstairs, and took the street car to Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne’s. She “gave” Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne three part days a week, and Mrs. Lemoyne, who was not very strong, cossetted Myrtle and apologized to her in a way that annoyed Mr. H. X. Lemoyne whose money Myrtle received.
When Myrtle got on the street car in a fairly good humour, she sat down behind a woman of about her own age, say forty-five, and this woman wore a nice suit and hat made of soft brown tweed. The woman sat there in a composed way and it would appear from her suede gloves and her alligator shoes and the well-made suit and becoming hat that she had a comfortable amount of money and was fairly successful in her undertakings and was happy and satisfied – for the moment – in her mind. This set up a faint irritation in Myrtle, and her angel heard Myrtle’s inner whisper that this woman should not be taking up working people’s places in street cars but should be driving herself. Myrtle and Mort became, for the purpose of argument, “working people,” as opposed to people wearing alligator shoes. The woman was actually a school teacher on leave of absence, and she had put her small house to rights, prepared dinner ahead of time, packed her nephews down to the beach with their lunches, put on her best clothes of which she was very proud, and was going to have lunch with her favourite sister-in-law to show her the new alligator shoes. Myrtle could not be expected to know this, and so she said within herself “A society woman! You can’t tell me!
You can’t tell me
anything about society women! I know them. I’ll bet her husband’s no good. They make me smile, they certny do, society women.” Having endowed the woman in the brown suit with several unpleasant qualities, and having herself assumed the character of a woman universally put upon, Myrtle got off the street car virtuous but in a poor temper and walked to Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne’s and let herself in.
you are, Mrs. Johnson!” cried Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne, who was still in her dressing gown and anxious to please. “What a beautiful day!” She was terrified by Myrtle’s eyelids, and could be disciplined any minute that Myrtle chose.
Myrtle did not answer (Oh Lord!
groaned Mrs. Lemoyne who felt silly at once), but walked to her cupboard, took off her things and put on a coverall which she kept there. She then went to Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne. “Anything special?” she asked, with her mood still upon her.
Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne had worked herself up considerably before Myrtle came, because last night an old school friend from Toronto had rung up, and she had enthusiastically arranged a small luncheon for the old school friend. Three other old school friends. “Just pot luck.” All this she now explained to Myrtle, becoming, as she did so, voluble and undignified. She explained that she had sent the children off to school with sandwiches and that her husband was not coming home to lunch. She kept on saying “Just pot luck!” Myrtle had not bargained for lunch parties, even pot luck. She patted the back of her hair and used her eyelids while avoiding looking at Mrs. Lemoyne who felt guilty and yet very angry with her own self for being so weak-minded.
“I’m not feeling so good this morning,” said Myrtle. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stay. Mr. Johnson brought me some tea this morning. When he saw how I looked he begged me not to come. He said, ‘Gosh, you look awful,’ and I said, ‘Believe me, it’s nothing to the way I feel.’ He wanted to stay home with me but I made him go because he’s got a big contracting job up in West Vancouver, but he sure didn’t want me to come. If I’d a known there was a luncheon party on I’d a stayed home like he asked me. He said ‘Now you’ve no need to work like this.’ He doesn’t like me going out, and him getting good money. He thinks it reflects.”
Mrs. H. X. Lemoyne apologized for all of this and felt that she was not paying Myrtle enough for coming and then said she had the dessert ready and what else would Myrtle like her to do. (How cross Hughie would be if he heard me talking like this! But I can’t help it), and Myrtle, now that she had vented her ill-humour and also displayed Mort as a superior type of husband, and had tossed in an artful disparagement of other husbands including Mr. H. X. Lemoyne, now that she had done her bit of drama, became fairly co-operative and “did” the house while Mrs. Lemoyne prepared the lunch. Myrtle forgot that last time Mort had figured in her conversation with Mrs. Lemoyne, he was lazy and you just couldn’t ever depend on him, and she, Myrtle, was the sole provider for the two of them, and what her parents (who had brought her up in affluence) would ever have said, she did not know. Mrs. Lemoyne, who was a pleasant woman but temperamentally afraid of people, remembered this and was puzzled, but did not stop to argue as she ran about the kitchen.
Excerpted from The Equations of Love by Ethel Wilson, afterword by Alice Munro. Copyright © 2010 by Ethel Wilson, afterword by Alice Munro. Excerpted by permission of New Canadian Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.