restricted access A Yard of Cloth
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142 ecotone A Yard of Cloth annie proulx nonfiction 143 In the late 1980s on the day after Thanksgiving my younger sister Roberta and I went to visit our mother in her little apartment complex of housing for the elderly. At the time we both lived in Vermont, on the west side of the Connecticut River, and tried to make this trip across the river to Bristol, New Hampshire, once a month to see our mother. She had been ill for years with bronchiectasis, a chronic degenerative lung disease. The day was mild for late November, but heavy overcast, light rain and fog, one of those dark days that New England breeds in autumn. There were deer hunters on the road driving slowly at twenty miles per hour, craning their necks to see into the scraggy woods. Roberta and I drove into the gathering gloom of Bristol. On the corner , a block from our mother’s building, there had once been a wonderful rock shop full of minerals, geodes, bits of agate, amethyst crystals, mud puppies, slabs of malachite. But the sign was gone and in its place was a drooping banner in the window: decorator fabrics lower than wholesale. Roberta and I both like beads, cloth, yarn, needles. We agreed to look in the shop on the way back if it was still open. The dinner was pork loin, creamed onions that tasted exactly the same as they had when we were children, sweet potatoes, applesauce Roberta had made from a neighbor’s apples, swapping him a chicken. Our mother was tired, but in fairly good health and spirits. She had exhausted herself for two days making the dinner. (Guilt! Guilt!) Late in the afternoon we left her. The light was fading. A thin mist blurred the small branches of the trees. At the corner we remembered the fabric-sale sign. The place was still open. I parked the truck and we went into the shop. There was no one in the shop. No one. Piles of folded fabric were stacked on long tables, bolts of shimmering brocade leaned against the wall. The shop stank of old minerals, stale cigarette smoke, and the scent of wet leaves and rain we brought in with us. The bolts of fabric were as awkward as loose walking sticks and slid and fell against each other when we tried to pull any one out. It was difficult to see the patterns without knocking down a dozen of them. As we wrestled with the slippery bolts the door opened and a man came in. In some inexplicable way he was repellent. His face was creased and seamed, his black hair combed over a narrow skull. Slack stubbled cheeks, discolored teeth. The bolts of fabric seemed viciously animated. The man began to talk to 144 ecotone us in an obsequious, intimate tone of voice. His comments were inane, stupid. “I know ladies like to rummage around with cloth.” The damn bolts of designer fabrics, probably hijacked, I thought, refused to stay in place. The man asked us where we came from. We evaded, saying simply “Vermont” and “across the river.” “Where in Vermont? What town?” He would not give up. “Oh, central Vermont, around Montpelier,” I lied. Now he insisted we take his business card. The cards were just across the street in his antique shop. No, no, we didn’t want him to bother. We refused. I was suddenly wild to get away from this man. He began to wind clocks, set the hands. I hated him. The fabrics were rich and fine, the prices very low, but it was impossible to make a rational selection with the man talking on and on in his oily way. Snatching up a bolt of fabric without looking at it, I said I would take a yard of cloth, try it at home and see if the colors were right. Anything to get away. He produced a grimy yardstick from under the counter and a pair of scissors with a broken point. My sister leaned silently over an empty birdcage still encrusted with droppings. With a little flourish, and promising “I’ll give you more than a...