PEOPLE AND THINGS
THAT WENT BEFORE
Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 11, Number 1
Copyright © 2016
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Fiction by Sarah Wolf
We met him in London, on the tube—a word I prefer to “metro”
or “subway,” because it makes me think of pneumatic messages
shooting anonymously through dark passageways, speeding somewhere
to be retrieved at last.
His name was Gerald; he taught law at Stanford; and my mother
was just what he wanted.
‡ ‡ ‡
Before we followed Gerald back to the States, we were living in
Bromley, Kent, with Peter Camden. Peter was the reason we moved
to England. We had known him in Boston, where he and my mother
were lovers, though that’s not how I thought of it at the time. Once we
came to England, though, I knew we were all together in some way.
Bromley was a bedroom town about forty minutes from London,
with sweet smells from the coffee-roaster on the main street, rolling hills
called downs, a bread man who delivered fresh loaves in baskets to our
door, and a ragman in a horse-drawn carriage that moved slowly down
the street at dawn.
At night we’d sit near the hearth to keep warm, and Peter would
tell me stories about Sir Galahad and Lancelot du Lac. In the morning,
on my way to school, I could kick up puddles or pluck the mysteriously
translucent and green-veined gooseberries that grew by the side of the
Though no one we knew talked much about God, I went to St.
Stevens, an Anglican school, because Peter said I’d be miserable in a
state school and my mother hated the political implications of sending
her ten-year-old to what the English incongruously call “public” school.
Also, she was broke.
We were studying the Middle Ages. We read about trial by fire,
trial by water, pillories, and the Magna Carta. Every Thursday we
spent the morning in church praying, mostly on our knees. At the right
moments in the service we would drop from our seats to be received by
worn cushioned knee pads that held us while we prayed until the
bracketed instructions in our prayer books told us to sit again. I liked
coordinating the shift from seat to knees, and knees to seat. I liked that
we moved in unison and that the church was cool and filled with the
hollow sound of the Minister’s voice while we were warm, still in our
overcoats, praying that way, in the semi-dark.
We got “points” for good behavior. Never demerits. When I got
ten points for “singing out loud and clear in choir” it amazed me to be
praised for so little. We sang about the Saxons and the Danes, God’s
love, and England’s “green and pleasant land.” And it was true: England
was pleasant, green, and full of magic.
‡ ‡ ‡
The day we first met Gerald, my mother and I were on one of
our “touristic weekends,” as Peter called them, when he stayed in
Bromley to write, and we went to London to see the sights.
Gerald sat in the seat opposite us, beaming at my mother, who
smiled back in a way that makes me wonder still whether she thought I
didn’t understand what that smile meant, or whether she just didn’t care.
They talked about our living in Bromley and his living in London, and he
turned to me and said, “Hello little girl, what’s your name? What a
pretty little girl you are,” without meeting my eyes or waiting for me to
answer. He looked at my mother again as if he had just won a joust for
her, and I felt uneasy for Peter and for me.
I knew my mother hated the conversation about being
American—that “here we are together” conversation “stranded in a
foreign land.” She sneered at the presumption that shared nationality
gave people anything important in common. But she and Gerald
walked and celebrated being American together all the way to his hotel.
It was a rare, clear spring day and London was imposing and clean.
Gerald was a big man, with a fleshy bland face and hands that
hovered near my mother’s shoulder or the small of her back, guiding
her as if by an invisible rein, never touching her but keeping her within
reach. I stayed silent and held her hand, which I tugged a few times,
though she wouldn’t look down. She just kept smiling at Gerald and
laughing, not her quiet laugh, or the loud one for something hilarious.
This was the laugh she had with men, the warm, soft one that ended on
a contented sigh that crested high, then trailed off into something like a
promise. I squeezed her hand and tugged hard, wanting her attention,
and also, maybe, to hurt her a little. She swatted me lightly with a flick
of her wrist, but otherwise seemed not to notice. She kept talking to
Gerald, and left me sitting in the lobby while she went with him to say
My mother and I spent most of that hazy green summer in
London, she, with Gerald mostly; me, with her friends the Caldwells
whose daughters were close to my age and loved the Beatles as much
as I did. We saw Help! six times. We went to the Tower with its
ravens and messages scratched in stone. We tried to find Paul’s house
to plant coded messages in his garden, where he’d discover them and
know we had secret knowledge and were worthy of his love.
The Caldwells took me to Cornwall. I rolled in silky spider
grass there, on low hills above the beach, wandered among the tackle
and other boat-shop mysteries, clutched the sand, grateful (though my
face was scraped) when the undertow that had pulled me toward the
waves tossed me back, less scared than giddy from the ride.
But the Caldwells brought me home to London, not Bromley,
and my mother was staying with Gerald, not Peter, and all my things
had been packed and shipped to the States.
Peter took me to the park so he could say good-bye. He told
me the French word “courtoisie” for courtesy and courtliness.
“California will be beautiful and different from any place you’ve
seen,” he said. “Close to the sea, but sunny and open. You’ll have lots
of space and freedom,” he said “freedom to move about.”
A week later I was living in a big one-story stucco house on a
street called Manzanitas. We had a porch with potted geraniums.
There was a redwood in the front yard and a mansion across the street
with huge Greek letters above the door. Its columns rose to the third
floor. Young men would lean out of its windows and call down to
other young men lounging on the broad steps or throwing a football on
the lawn. I walked past the mansion every day on my way to school,
where my English accent and long black hair gave me some brief status
before I was merely awkward and new and uninterested in sports or
‡ ‡ ‡
October came, melancholy and golden. On the side lawn of the
fraternity, the brothers and their girlfriends were building a float out of
chicken wire outlined with a picture that took shape as the girls stuffed
it with pieces of colored crepe paper torn from several colored wheels
spread over the lawn. The boys, all shouts and muscles, scrimmaged
about twenty feet away. The girls wore wool skirts and sweaters.
Their cheeks were powdered pink and their eyes were powdered blue.
The float said “Kill Cal,” and the image emerging out of blue,
gold, and red crepe paper was of a bear being hacked to death by an
Indian with a tomahawk. The bear was blue and gold. The Indian and
the blood were red.
“That’s completely idiotic.”
“I know,” I said, turning to the girl who had stopped next to me.
She was wearing a fringed suede jacket.
“It’s the girls doing all the work while the boys do sports,” I said.
“No, just lived there. Now I live across the street. “
“So do I.” She pointed to the house next to mine. “I haven’t
seen you at the bus stop.”
“I don’t take the bus. My school’s just up the hill,” I said.
She looked like she might take off and pronounced, “You’re
only in sixth grade.”
I nodded. “Why are they killing the bear?”
“Because Stanford’s going to SLAUGHTER Berkeley in the
Big Game.” She made her voice husky and wiggled her hips, a sort of
“Thereby winning the lovely demoiselles,” I said.
“DemoiZELZ?” She cracked a smile. “You seem older.”
She tugged my sleeve and led me across the street. She showed me
the fig tree between our houses, how its branches were limber so you
could pull them close enough to get the highest figs. Her name was
Becky. She was fifteen.
We’d sit under the fig tree sometimes in the evening and talk,
when she wasn’t busy with her high school friends. She hated the war
and she hated school. She told me about Summerhill, in England. “It’s
a free school,” she said, “meaning you’re free to learn in whatever way
you want.” Her parents wouldn’t even consider sending her there,
which was one reason she hated them, too.
Sometimes, during the day, if we wanted to escape from
everyone, we’d climb the redwood. Its branches grew too thick and
low to give shelter, but they radiated around the trunk so tightly that we
climbed them like a ladder. We’d sit close to the trunk, high above the
yard, our faces almost touching the soft, reddish bark. We were
invisible as long as we whispered.
One afternoon a football flew across the street in a curve below
us and landed on the front porch behind the geraniums. A frat boy
followed, wet with mud and sweat. As he reached behind the potted
plants, my mother opened the door. He jumped back, then seemed to
be apologizing. We could tell by the way she moved as she stepped
outside that everything was fine with her, but the frat boy just stood
there shifting his weight, unable to take his eyes off her, unable to make
himself leave. She was laughing the warm laugh. We saw him wipe his
palm on his shirt before shaking her hand and pulling himself away.
‡ ‡ ‡
That winter Peter and I exchanged letters:
Dear Peter, (I wrote)
California is beautiful. It’s lovely and smells of eucalyptus
trees, though now it rains a lot, like England. I liked St. Stevens
more than my school here. I hope you are having a good time in
Bromley. I miss England. Do you think I could come for a visit?
Maybe I could just come for a year and we can see how things
I wish things were different and that you could visit but it
isn’t possible now. You will like California more than England
before long. Have a wonderful year.
My best love,
I was having a hard time adjusting to school. My teacher, Mr.
Mackey, pulled me aside one day when I was the last to leave the
classroom and said, “With hair and legs as long as yours you could
make a fortune walking the streets in Stockholm.” I still sometimes
ponder his choice of Stockholm as my city of sin. Did he really mean
Amsterdam? Or did he have enough experience with the pale Swedes
to know they particularly prize black hair? Or was he protecting me,
sending me off to a life of whoring in a particularly clean and
“He’s an old lecher,” Becky told me. “Just get out of class fast.”
But sometimes I thought of Stockholm with relief. I was not so
naive that I thought Mr. Mackey was saying that a literal walk down
the street could make me rich. I knew he meant something about the
value of being desired, and that was reassuring.
‡ ‡ ‡
My mother, dressed up and perfumed more than she ever was in
Bromley, went out most nights with Gerald. I didn’t really mind.
Becky would come over after they left and we’d listen to Beatles
records. I’d go wild dancing to “Dizzy Miss Lizzie.” We’d be silent
for “Nowhere Man,” because it was Becky’s song. I’d help iron her
hair to make it as straight as mine. Then we’d lie on the floor in the
dark and shine flashlights at Gerald’s chandelier to make watery
shadows on the ceiling.
She told me she loved a boy named Michael. He had a harem—
Becky and three of her friends. He was a poet and had been beaten
up by frat boys who also cut his hair, though this had not marred his
beauty. Michael and the harem met in the steam tunnels under the
University, and someday, maybe, she’d take me there.
‡ ‡ ‡
In early spring when dry California turns green and the acacias
blooming in blurred yellow bunches are like wet dabs of warmth in the
cool trees, Becky took me to Michael. I brought him oatmeal cookies
I’d baked and hyacinths I’d picked from the back yard.
Becky and I descended into the steam tunnels through a gate
behind a gardening shed on one of the landscaped islands that
decorated the campus. We moved down a shallow incline in the dark,
slowly, until our eyes adjusted and we could see. The steam was
warm and smelled of Laundromats, but also of vegetation just starting
to decay. The tunnel seemed ancient, secret, and safe.
Michael and the girls were waiting for us at a sort of crossroads
where two tunnels intersected. He was skinny but muscular. His dark
hair fell in baby angel curls over his pale face. He had round, thick-
lashed eyes—Becky swore they were lavender, but I couldn’t see well
enough in the dark to be sure—and a full, pouty mouth. When he took
off his shirt his chest was smooth, white, narrow—a boy’s chest—but
he was proud of himself, proud of the little ridges over his stomach and
the small round bulges of muscle on his arms.
Michael and the harem danced in silence and in slow motion like
ghosts waltzing. They touched each other’s hands in the air, then
floated away from each other as if their limbs were light and fragile as
bubbles. The slightest touching of arms or legs or hips would tilt them
backwards, nearly off balance until they turned and floated in another
direction, into another weightlessly careening body.
The hyacinths made the steam smell sweet and thick. Becky
stopped dancing. She lifted her skirt. A small cotton sack made from
a handkerchief was hanging between her legs, suspended from a string
tied around her waist. One of the girls turned to Becky, nodded
toward me and said, “Does she—?”
“No,” Becky said, “but she’s cool.” She untied the bag and
divided the pot among her friends. Then we wrapped the cookies—
the harem said they’d taste better later—and retraced our path up the
dark slope. Michael pushed the door open and for a second the color
and clarity in that rectangle of lighted world stunned me, so that I
walked too slowly to keep up with the others.
“C’mon,” Becky called. She ran back and took my arm. They
were going somewhere to get high, and she knew I didn’t want to, but
couldn’t leave me hanging around the tunnel door. We all walked
together for a while, then parted ways, as they headed toward another
of their secret places and I wandered home alone. I liked the steam
tunnels for that one visit, but didn’t think I’d want to spend a lot of time
‡ ‡ ‡
The days grew longer and warmer and school was almost out
for the summer. I decided to write to John.
Dear Mr. Lennon,
(I hate it when people think they can call famous people
“John” and so on just because they know all about you, because
you don’t know about them. Us, I mean.)
I have heard that you intend to send your baby Julian to
Summerhill someday. I think that is wonderful. I want to go
there but my mother won’t let me move to England. I hate
We lived in England last year and I liked it better there.
Before Julian goes to Summerhill you will need a mother’s helper
for him. I am available.
Thank you for being against the war in Viet Nam. I read
that you said you respected Joan Baez more than any American
woman. So do I.
I’m sure if you want me to take care of Julian my mother
will let me.
Please write soon.
‡ ‡ ‡
Becky had told me once about an Italian movie star who jumped
into a fountain in Rome. This seemed to me the most romantic and free
act a woman could commit. The fountain in White Plaza at the center
of campus was a wide shallow pool with arcing pieces of metal at its
center that spread a soft mist all the way to the pool’s edge. It was the
first day of vacation, and hot. I jumped. I knew I was beautiful, knew
people were watching my damp hair and my long wet legs, knew my
clothes were sticking to my body. My foot sent pain straight to my
head, and I stumbled to the side of the fountain, sat on the edge and
examined my wound, a clean vertical slice from the skin to the bone, so
that the flesh looked deliberately cut and white, like the whale blubber
I’d seen in pictures. I screamed. Blood rushed out of me. I’d never
seen such quantities of red spreading everywhere and me screaming.
A Stanford student, much bigger than Michael, put his arm
around me and said, “It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.” He took off his shirt
and tied it tight around my foot. He lifted me up and carried me over
his shoulder. It was pleasant to feel his warm body under me and to
smell his clean bare skin. It felt good to be carried that way. Then we
were in a car—had he flagged it?—and I was still leaning against him,
or he was holding me, all the way to the hospital. He kept asking if I
was all right. I don’t remember anything but his warm, strong body and
good smell. I don’t remember crying.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, as he lowered me to the waiting-
room couch. A plastic bouquet of red roses on the table made me
think of Peter and the story he told me about a walled rose garden in
France long ago, where qualities like openness and friendship came to
life. They’d slip their arms around your waist or over your shoulder
and lead you down the path among the grape arbors, spice trees, and
“She must have stepped on a glass,” the student was saying to
the nurse as they approached, and then to me, “I can’t stay. But the
doctor and nurses will take good care of you.” I remembered Peter’s
farewell—what he’d told me about “courtoisie”—so I held out my
hand. The student looked a little puzzled, but shook it. “You’ll be fine
now,” he said. “Good-bye.”
I heard him in the next room, thanking the receptionist who was
handing back his shirt. Then I heard his voice trailing far down the
hallway as he kept explaining to someone that he had to leave.
He may have saved my life, but I never saw him again.
This is Sarah Wolf’s first published story since she took a long break
from writing. In the 20th century she published in The Ohio Review,
Columbia, and Extreme. She was born in Palo Alto, California, and
now lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she has taught French and
On “People and Things that Went Before”:
In 1965 we moved from England, where I’d been studying the
Middle Ages in grammar school, to the Stanford campus, across
from a frat house. When I started this story, I was writing about
knights and frat boys, their codes and rituals, courtly and less
courtly love. When I picked the story up years later, I was more
interested in Alice’s journey through a year. I kept thinking of
an eleven-year-old girl moving, without much guidance, through
a world of men, and what she might one day make of the puzzle.
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