Alice Munro Hateship SmallThe details in “Post and Bean” matter. The specific itty-bitty matters of surprising consequence. Not necessarily what one sees at first glance, but what one uncovers, what the broader whole can be understood to mean.

Take the group of people in the church office. At first, a stranger to the office might think, “Oh, what a cozy bunch”. One might wonder at how well each of them must know the other, sharing such a small space, and how might that familiarity engender a comfortable working environment.

“Everybody munched on secret eats and never shared.”

That fact alone colours the entire scene. But in an Alice Muno story, events can turn on a detail. On its symbolic importance. On a misunderstood importance. Or a lack of importance.

There is Janine with her caramels. And Lionel with his sugared almonds. And Mrs. Penfound — but what snack does she favour? What is as surprising as the fact that she doesn’t leave the wrappers in the bin is the fact that someone has checked the bin.

Readers are meant to take time with the details, to assemble layers of meaning.

Polly doesn’t simply bake treats from the recipes in her grandmother’s cookbook; she bakes chocolate date cake, macaroons, and divinity fudge.

It is not enough to know that Lionel “would not have changed out of his workday outfit”; readers need to know that that outfit consists of “[d]ark trousers, a white shirt that always looked grubby and worn around the cuffs and collar, a nondescript tie”.

A description of a kitchen is not complete without the observation that a mirror hangs above the range, with a tin trough built beneath which always held “a comb, an old cup-handle, a tiny pot of dry rouge that must have once been her mother’s”.

Sometimes these details are sketched for obvious reasons; it is convenient for readers to have a clear picture of Polly, who has come to the west coast to visit Lorna, who now lives in the post and beam house with her husband.

“Some things about Polly’s looks Lorna had forgotten. How tall she was and what a long neck and narrow waist she had, and an almost perfectly flat chest. A bumpy little chin and a wry mouth. Pale skin, light-brown hair cut short, fine as feathers. She looked both frail and hardy, like a daisy on a long stalk. She wore a ruffled denim skirt with embroidery on it.”

But the tremendous irony is that the story is as much about forgotten details as remembered ones.

For all the importance placed upon details, what comprises a memory is often so vague it is barely more than forgotten. And the more vague, the more resonant, the more haunting.

“And even in that memory, her mother was only a hip and a shoulder, in a heavy coat.”

When Lorna tries to piece together an understanding of an acquaintance by visiting their home while they are away, she looks for details, but cannot find any and, therefore, cannot get a sense of who he really is. There is, paradoxically, more of a sense of connection in absence for Lorna here.

“Things must be hidden somewhere. In the bureau drawers? She couldn’t look. Not only because there was no time—she could hear Elizabeth calling her from the yard—but the very absence of whatever might be personal made the sense of [him] stronger.”

And Lorna’s sense of personal connection to Polly is fading too. Even when Polly is right before her eyes, Polly appears changed to Lorna.

“Polly was no longer that person who had rubbed Lorna’s small hands between her own, the person who knew all the things Lorna did not know and who could be trusted to take care of her in the world. Everything had been turned around, and it seemed that in the years since Lorna got married Polly had stayed still. Lorna had passed her by. And now Lorna had the children in the back seat to take care of and to love, and it was unseemly for a person of Polly’s age to come clawing for her share.”

Undoubtedly, as changed as Polly appears to be to Lorna, Lorna must appear differently to Polly, too. For starters, Lorna has status. She is married now. And married to a man of means. A man who can afford to have a house designed to look like a rural home but reside in the middle of a wealthy suburb. But whether this is an enviable state for any woman is questionable.

Lorna certainly recognizes that there is something she is lacking.

“It was not until now, not until this moment, that she had seen so clearly that she was counting on something happening, something that would change her life. She had accepted her marriage as one big change, but not as the last one.
So, nothing now but what she or anybody could sensibly foresee. That was to be her happiness, that was what she had bargained for. Nothing secret, or strange.”

She has bargained for this. To be paired off, like the girls in the madeleine story that she and Elizabeth have learned by heart:

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread Brushed their teeth and went to bed—”

But readers know that Lorna began paired with another little girl, who rubbed her small hands between her own and knew things about the world. She began by imagining that something wonderful would happen.

And what of that strange and secret thing? That which was to have been their happiness?

What of that?

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the sixth story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Tomorrow: “What Is Remembered”.

Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.