Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Vera

Commentary by Betty Bell


By BETTY BELL

Betty Bell

"It was the dog who raised me," begins August Kleinzahler's memoir, which then goes on to let us see and smell the dog, a boxer, "...one ear wrong...it didn't set up properly. And his right eye dripped...he had never been what one would think of as a good-smelling creature, given as he was to flatulence and halitosis."

It was the latter, the smell, that whisked me up and away and plunked me down in the middle of the last century, in the middle of Ketchum, in the middle of winter, at a tiny table in a tiny log cabin, fork poised to spear a piece of meat, when the pair of resident boxers expelled simultaneous blasts of flatulence that burst through the room like Roman candles.

Vera, my hostess, said, "Pay no attention...they've been cooped up all day is all." She saw that I was sipping shallow breaths only on the brink of blackout.

"Hoó-be-gahn didn't have time to take them for their walk today," Vera said. I spell Baron Pirquet's name—a title that didn't suit that gentle man—as Vera pronounced it. I never asked how to spell it because Vera was already convinced I was right out of a cornfield; actually, I was from cornfieldless Omaha, hired as a "soda fountain attendant," the official job description that reads better than soda-jerk, in the little drug store at the "L" in the Challenger Inn. Vera, the pharmacist, even at only five-foot-five and rounded softly as is not uncommon in the centrally aged, was a giant presence right from the git-go. There was a designated store manager, but Vera ruled. She was...imperial...I guess you'd say.

The two-dog night memory had been long stored under a bunch of musty stuff, and I was surprised to be reopening the few pages in my life when Vera Pirquet was a scene-stealer. My mission in Sun Valley was to learn to ski, and because Vera already knew how I didn't let her personal quirks bump her off the pedestal on which I'd placed her. She not only already knew how, she'd skied the great slopes in Europe I'd only read about. I'd have shouldered her skis to the mountain every day, and scraped the frost off her chair too, if she'd shown any empathy for a bunny.

During the era of Vera, my name was Mabel. Vera called everyone who worked in the drug store Mabel. We resented it at first, but it wasn't long before we were calling one another Mabel, and then one bold day I called Vera Mabel, too, and in that boldness became a friend who one day was invited to share the aromatic dinner.

All female employees were Mabel to Vera, and all male employees were George—except Mr. Rogers, the General Manager, a towering figure and a mythical one even then. When Mr. Rogers showed up in the drug store on one of his routine check-ups, Vera seemed as wee as the rest of us.

The Georges did not accept their name graciously. About every day, a bellman would come to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, and there'd be no smile on his face as he'd go to the pharmacy window and say, "I'm here to pick up the prescription for Mr. Smith in room 311 in the Lodge."

"Here it is, George, I've already charged it to his room," Vera would reply, haughtily. And then we Mabels would watch with glee as George's anger blossomed—he with the brass nameplate that proclaimed Shorty or Norris, or Jack or Bud or Paul. He'd turn deep purple, snatch up the prescription, spin about and stomp out. Our bourgeois reaction to George's righteous anger was totally justified; bellmen had a rung up on soda fountain attendants on the ladder that just might lead to General Manager.

I was sitting here with my ribcage wrapped around a swizzle of pleasure at this memory of those good-times, when this peculiar notion hit hard. Maybe there's more than memory at work here, maybe there's a residue of Catholicism from the time I believed that when not-too-serious sinners died their souls didn't go to hell, they went to a kind of half-way house, purgatory, where the bad stuff got burned away, and those of us still topside could contribute points toward an earlier salvation when we remembered them in our prayers. Maybe, just in remembering Vera and Hoo-begahn—and Shorty and Norris, and Jack and Bud and Paul—somewhere points are being recorded. Who's to know?




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