As with “Friend of My Youth”, the bulk of “Five Points” concerns a story told by one of the characters, Neil, who is speaking of events from his past, when he was a boy in British Columbia.
In both stories, the story rooted in Neil’s memories and the present-day story of Neil and Brenda, there is a question of exchange, of goods and services, sought after, procured and paid for.
Early on, it is clear that the quality of the goods is important to consider. Are they fresh, unsullied, well-presented, pleasing-to-the-eye, well-cared for, satisfying?
The candy store that Neil recalls from his early childhood was run by a grouchy woman with eyebrows painted-on, the candy in cat-pissed cardboard boxes.
Then a Croatian couple took over the store, cleared out the stale candy and sold the fresh goods in jars, along with coffee and soft drinks and homemade cakes.
(There are other transactions to think of: services, not goods; their quality is weighed and measured as well, the question of long-term satisfaction the subject of debate.)
Along with the pierogi and poppy-seed loaf, one of the two daughters soon develops a side-business at the store. She has her own desires and she is willing to pay a price for them.
At first, in running the Confectionary, this older daughter is savvy and she rigorously monitors the business dealings. Over time, however, she makes an error in judgement about her own transactions, and this impacts the family business fundamentally.
Brenda and her husband, Cornelius, also have a business, which they run from their barn, selling used appliances, furniture and household goods.
This is how Neil meets Brenda, following a conversation with Cornelius about a particular sort of bicycle that Neil is looking to buy second-hand.
(Neil has seriously considered what he’s looking for in this bicycle and he outlines it in detail to Cornelius, suggesting that he keep watch for one, as Neil is in the market. He is a serious buyer.)
There is no bicycle in Cornelius and Brenda’s shop that day, but Neil leaves with a fresh interest in a new commodity. And, when Neil returns to see if a bicycle has materialized, Cornelius is lying down in the house and only Brenda is there to deal with Neil.
“Neil and Brenda made everything clear to each other then, without saying anything definite. When he phoned and asked her to have a drink with him, in a tavern on the lakeshore road, she knew what he was asking and she knew what she would answer.”
But as much as Brenda appears to know the trajectory of this story, her own story, the reader does not completely understand how the outcome can be so certain in her mind.
“She told him that she hadn’t done anything like this before. That was a lie in one way and in another way true.”
The reader, ultimately, is left to deduce which part of Brenda’s statement is a lie and which part is true.
But what is clear? Without anything definite having been said? That that which we do not see has a weight all its own.
What happens in the shed behind the Confectionary? What goes on beneath the surface of the lake in the mines that Cornelius works in?
What happens in a trailer off the beaten path? What Brenda’s daughter is doing in a car on the highway with several girlfriends when she told her mother she was going to play tennis?
The cost of these transactions is measured in more than one way; it is not always about the dollars and cents when assessing value.
“A shapely woman, with fair, freckled skin and blue eyes rimmed with blue shadow and liner, screwed up appealingly against any light. Her reddish-blond hair — touched up yesterday — catching the sun like a crown of petals. She wears heels just for this walk, just for this moment of crossing the road with his eyes on her, the extra bit of pelvic movement and leg length they give her.”
Brenda has assessed her own value, and as her relationship with Neil grows more intimate, she assesses his as well, along with what they currently exchange.
The figures that she has calculated before and after she has heard Neil’s story about the Confectionary differ substantially.
“Five Points” considers and embodies the weight of depreciation.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the second story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.