Mitchell Toews tells the story of young Matty and his characterful neighbour encountering a travelling salesman in the sleepy Manitoba town of Hartplatz.
The town was a dot on the immense map of Canada; a mere speck on the globe that sat on Miss Kornelsen's desk in the imposing wooden school house on Reimer Avenue. So many people were of similar (Mennonite) lineage and had the same names, first and last, that nicknames were almost obligatory. Corny (Cornelius, a popular name) Friesen became Flash Friesen (he owned a camera). Another Corny Friesen was High-Pockets (he was tall). Yet another Cornelius Friesen was Pastor Friesen, and so on.
Not only were many of us named the same/similarly, but it was said of us that we all thought the same. In truth, we did not, of course. There were as many opinions as there were grains of sand or stars in the sky. In fact, many practical-minded people stocked up on them. They had one opinion - on the same subject - for each situation. One for Flash Friesen (so argumentative; mercurial!); one for that show-off High-Pockets; and yet another subdued, measured and deep-voiced for Pastor Friesen. And then one more secret one, whispered in quiet conspiracy, staring up at the ceiling late at night, the hushed words mixing with the sound of crickets through the open bedroom window.
And the little town slept.
However; if you chose to have a social life, to run a business profitably or to have an itchy spot on your back scratched from time to time - it was best to get in step and mind the prevalence of the strongest wind.
The Japanese have a saying: "The standing nail gets hammered down." That kind of sums it up, although in Hartplatz the meaning would be the same, but it might more accurately be: "The standing nail gets pulled, straightened out and put in an old Cheez Whiz jar in the shed with the others."
Everyone is a product of their place and time; of the circumstances and influences in their life. It is as inevitable as cheese and buns at faspa (late afternoon lunch) on Sunday.
And yet there were standing nails in Hartplatz. And some of those standing nails were not hammered down or pulled out. They became monumental and shed influence like a tall creekside elm sheds leaves. Redoubtable; these stalwart trees in the wilderness that people journeyed from afar to see were completely unlike the numerous reeds of no account, trembling in the wind. Who would go out of their way to see the weak, twisting and turning at the mercy of the gusts that blew in a certain place, at a certain time?
Of the stately elms that flourished in Hartplatz - and there were several - one of my favourites was Mr. Peter Vogel. He did not speak much, but when he did it was in a strong and simple way. His Russian-German accent chamfered the edges of his pronunciation and gave verbal witness that this place had not been his only place.
Pete Vogel ran a small dry goods. He was a good businessman and turned his revenues into tidy sums through investment and care. Profit is inza buying he would say to my Dad, wagging a finger. It was the 60s and Mr. Vogel wore suits and starched white shirts, purchased on an annual trip to New York City - ostensibly to visit manufacturers of pots and pans - but somehow the Metropolitan Opera and a couple of Yankee games always seemed to coincide.
His views were just that: they were his. Often they were his alone, but he did not mind that. His children grew, observing this steadfastness and believing it was the only way to be. His friends resisted the temptation to see him as a misfit or a trouble-maker. He just cleaved his path through turmoil a little deeper, or a bit more confidently, than others. He cleaved like he meant it.
Oomjke (Mister) Vogel came from a distant place - Molotchna or Milk River in Southern Russia - but so did most of his neighbours. Unlike many of them, he resisted the urge to unpack his restlessness and settle. He ran his store and fed his family but always kept his nimble mind on the move - through books, music, poetry, argument, newspapers, theatre, and travel. He lived to experience and to learn. "A smooth sea makes not a skilled sailor," was a phrase he enjoyed repeating, the skin at the outer corners of his eyes like corduroy as he said it.
He also fed his soul with faith. But he took great care to ensure that he offered the exact same respect for the visible and the living as he did for the invisible and the divine. The golden rule was an instrument he used often. He kept it in good repair and close at hand. He expressed it with deeds - more with execution than elocution.
This credo did not restrict him from being humorous or even a bit cutting, when called for. But, his rebuttals were generally built upon an underlying kindness and never excessively cruel. He was famously direct and those who sparred with him knew to expect few feigns - mostly quick jabs. He was unflinching in dealing with purveyors of glass beads and snake oil. Sometimes, it could be said, to a point too acute and a standard too high.
One summer afternoon, my Winnipeg cousin Doug and I were sitting in the shade of Penner Electric, on the concrete steps, eating jawbreakers. We sat in the protective shade, pulling the candies out of our mouths periodically to track the changing colours. Scientifically, we determined that the layers of colour were the same order on each jawbreaker, but that the thickness of each colour coating varied. (Or could it have been variability in our individual slurping power?)
Suddenly, I hit Dougy in the arm and pointed across the street. There, between the hardware store and the flour mill was a man, walking. He wore a simple white shirt, open at the collar. His pants were standard issue, as were his shoes. His sleeves were rolled up in the heat and he had a watch on his right hand. He wore sunglasses and had a pencil behind one ear. The mustard yellow pencil was unusual, but not defining.
He was unremarkable in all things except one. What was significant for me was the colour of his skin. He was a black man - a Negro - and I had never seen a Negro in person before. I had seen Natives ("Indians", in those days), and Asians (a family of Chinese-Canadians - Orientals then - owned the local greasy spoon: "Jimmy's Grill"). Also, Ahmed, the man who sold vacuum cleaners was of undisclosed (to me) racial ancestry. To Dougy, a man of the world and flush with Portage Avenue experience, my ignorance was comical.
But I was adamant - I wanted to see him up close, and so we trotted across the asphalt of Main Street towards the man, our paper sacks of jawbreakers slapping against our thighs as we jogged.
He saw us and paid no attention until we adjusted our pace to his and fell in step behind him. He looked back and smiled at us. After a half-block, he stopped and turned to face us. "You lads haven't seen a man - he said "mon", like yawn - like me before, have you?"
"I have," said Dougy, his chin jutting out a bit. "Lots."
"Uh-uh," I admitted, shaking my head no. "Sorry. I... " But he interrupted my stammering, holding out a slender hand with a pale palm, "My name is Anton William. I am from Port Arthur, Ontario and I am here to sell encyclopedias. My boss will meet me at Barkman ("Bark-mon") Avenue and Main Street. Do you boys want to look at an encyclopedia?"
I held his hand in a shake, and nodded, my mouth hanging open until Doug kicked the back of my leg.
We walked the block to Barkman and waited with him in the shade beside the bakery my parents owned. I took him inside where my Mother was cleaning the display case and introduced her to Mr. Anton William from Port Arthur, Ontario. Dougy enthusiastically added that we would be looking at a real encyclopedia as soon as Mr. William's boss arrived. "He has a new Buick," Mr. William said, my mother nodding. My Mom gave us each a jambuster, Mr. William too, and pulled me aside. "Matty. Is he a stranger?" she whispered.
"Yeah, but..." I began.
"No buts. Do you take rides with strangers?"
"Will you please ask Mr. William to bring the encyclopedia into the bakery, when his boss gets here in his Buick?" she instructed.
"Yes, okay," I replied, happy to still be able to see the encyclopedia. Southwood School had encyclopediae, but they were in the Grade Six classroom and we were not allowed to see them, except if we were doing a special project and then we had to go with our teacher to Tea Pot Hiebert's room.
Every few minutes Mr. William would thank my Mom again for the jambuster and after the third time, he leaned over the display case and pointing a thin finger, said, "Two of dose buns, please ma'am," saying ma'am like mum. This pronunciation confused me a little - I thought that he called her mom because I did and he thought that was her name or something.
He paid her with pennies and a nickel, saying, "Thank you, mum." She caught my eye and winked really quickly and I half-smiled and mouthed, "mum" at her. She smiled and whistled tunelessly, the way she did when things were a little stressed or she was nervous.
Mr. Vogel came in. He was wearing a gray suit, despite the heat, and his glasses fogged a bit when he walked into the bakery. It was very hot from the day and the baking. He took off his glasses and wiped them on a clean white hanky he took from his inside pocket. My mom handed over a dozen fresh zwieback buns in a white paper bag, a daily order, and said she would mark it in the book. We kept a record for them and they reciprocated (for the things we bought at Vogel's Economy Store) and at month's end, we reconciled the accounts and carried forward the balance.
The tall, regal man tapped his hand on his thigh, waiting for Mr. William to look his way. Dougy was trying to catch a blue-bottom fly against the window and my mom was busy. I watched as Mr. Vogel waited to attract the Negro man's attention.
"So, so," he said suddenly, looking at Mr. William, who looked up at him and smiled weakly.
"You are a TRAVELLING SALESMAN?" he said, leaning forward and raising his voice, the way my Grandpa talked to Uncle Henry, who was "deaf and dumb".
"He sells encyclopedias, Mr. Vogel," I offered. "He's gonna show us one."
"Show me too," Vogel said in his clipped manner, glancing at my Mom, who looked up and nodded quickly at him.
A Buick drove up on the street outside. "There he is!" said Mr. Anton William, nervous now in the quiet bakery - the bakers gone for the day and the ovens clicking as they cooled.
We all walked out together. Mr. Vogel was playfully drilling a long bony finger between my shoulder blades as we walked toward the canary yellow 1962 Buick Invicta Estate Wagon. I looked back and grinned.
"How much," he said loudly, "iss the COST?" as we drew near to the car. A heavyset man with a short-sleeved shirt and a white plastic pocket protector had opened the back of the wagon and was loosening the lid of a cardboard box. The droning, whining sound of Pine Beetles rubbing their black antlers together pierced the quiet of the prairie afternoon. The encyclopedia boss stopped what he was doing, squinting as we walked towards him, the sun in his face. He shaded his eyes to see thin and craggy Mr. Vogel in his pin-striped New York suit and two boys in shorts and t-shirts.
"How much?" Mr. Vogel said again, laying his bag of buns on the tailgate and picking up a book.
"Fifteen per book or ninety-nine for the set," said the man in the short-sleeved shirt.
"And next year?"
"What about next year?" the man replied, a bit annoyed.
"Next year, dey books ist OLD, they are ob-so-lete," Pete Vogel stated, chopping the last word into loud pieces. He looked back at the bakery, then quickly checked his wristwatch.
"Obsolete?" said the puzzled man, fingering his Buick keys.
"Yah. Not so good, the next year, eh?" Vogel declared as he plopped the heavy book back on the pile, reaching for his bag of buns.
"Not so fast," said the Buick man, "How much changes in a year? Think about it, most of the facts are the same. A tree is a tree. Sodium is sodium."
I thought that was a pretty good comeback and I looked quickly at Mr. Vogel, eager to hear what he would say. It was like Carl Yastrzemski had just taken a Whitey Ford screwball for a called strike three and then looked up in grudging respect.
"Nah." Vogel replied, as he pulled out the square white hanky and rubbed powdered sugar from my chin, "The school, dey haf new ones every year - they UPDATE," he said nodding at the fat man and glancing at Mr. William, who stood on the other side of the Invicta. "History does-not-stop," he said strongly, bending rabbinically at the waist to emphasize each syllable.
"Can the boys take a look?" Anton William requested politely, his voice clear and quiet.
Mr. Vogel, looked back at the bakery again, where my mom stood outside in the shade, her hands folded over the white apron she wore to serve customers. He creased the fold in his handkerchief and looked at the Buick man, "Sure. Show the boyz. Show dem baseball."
Buick man grabbed the B book and flipped it to the baseball entry. It showed a picture of Bill Mazeroski crossing home plate. "Pirates World Champs" was the caption.
Vogel looked down imperiously at the man. A killdeer, concerned about our presence near her nest under the nearby crab apple tree, feigned a broken wing; calling vociferously to get our attention. We ignored the small bird - waiting for the big one's response.
Finally, "Yankees," Mr. Vogel said - announced, really - smiling broadly. Anton William grinned too, briefly, and looked down, scuffing gravel with his shoe. Buick man looked puzzled again.
"Matty," Mr. Vogel said to me, his finger pointing like a TV prosecutor's, "who won the World Series last summer?" Mr. Vogel was looking steadily at the salesman, who was wiping away sweat that had dripped from the tip of his nose onto the dark faux-leather of the C book.
"The Yankees beat the Reds," I said correctly, remembering how we listened to games on the big radio in the Vogel's living room, sipping on Coke and eating Päpanät (Russian "pepper nut" cookies) from a glass tray on a white doily. I remembered Maris and Mantle. And Yogi, who looked like a roly-poly bear in his catcher's gear. I remembered Cincinnati had lost because I had the "Heavy Artillery" Topps Baseball Card. It was one of my favourites; showing Vada Pinson, Gus Bell, and the wonderful Frank Robinson. These three were the "Reds' Heavy Artillery", according to the baseball card.
I thought of how Frank Robinson ran in the outfield, fleetly and smoothly on the balls of his feet so his head stayed level and he could keep his eyes fixed on the baseball. Frank's heels never touched the ground, no matter how fast he sprinted across the grass. He played outfield like Mr. Vogel lived life - with grace and boldness.
"Ya. Yankees. Fife games." He held up a giant hand, with five digits standing out like the spokes of a wagon wheel.
"And this," the Buick man said, gesturing circularly - like stirring a drink with his finger - "is Murderer's Row." Then, sucking his teeth, he nodded to Mr. William; "Anton, let's go. I'll take you to the new part of town. Jump in." The Buick man looked at Mr. Vogel and closed the tailgate after the tall man, still smiling, retrieved his buns. Anton William took the B book from Dougy, nodded to Vogel evenly and got into the pale yellow car.
The Invicta drove away with its muffler hanging a bit low. Mr. Vogel said this, to the Pine Beetles, and Mother Killdeer, and to the crab apple tree on the Feeblecorn's front yard. And to us: "Yankees vill vin again, dis season!" his clear eyes following the car as it rolled away on Barkman Avenue. "Den da next issue of dat "B" book can be right for at least two years!" He laughed, his shoulders rocking as he dabbed his hanky at his crinkled eyes, his expensive eyeglasses pushed up high on his forehead.