Willi was one of those men whose faces look as though they were hewn from a chunk of wood with a dull axe. Below his dark curling hair, graying at the tips, his forehead hung like a great cliff over eye sockets so deep that in their shadows his eyes were almost hidden from view. His nose was large and many angled. His jaw was massive with a slight over bite. His ears were protruding and gigantic. His head was long and pear shaped and perched atop a small tough body which could work for sixteen hours in a day with no greater toll than a pleasant, languid weariness as he climbed into bed in the evening.
Willi was born on a farm outside a small town in a part of the country filled with pothole lakes and marshes; a flat place where first the pressure of an ancient lake and then the scraping retreat of glaciers removed all hills and prominences. He was the oldest of twelve siblings. The farm was dairy. The family sold some of the milk as milk but most they turned into cheese. This was where they really made their money. Willi’s mother’s cheese, for it was she who was the master cheese maker, was exceptional and they could sell as much as they could make and more. Nobody gets rich from making cheese, especially if they have twelve children, but the family’s operation brought in enough to make ends meet and, with good money management, there was a little left over. In their humble, hard working community, where many had far less, they were considered mildly prosperous.
When Willi was a teenager and a young man he did not go out with girls. He saw himself as a kind of troglodyte, and what girl would be interested in stepping out with a troglodyte? He attended school graduation with a friend of Evelyn’s, his oldest sister, but this was an arranged affair and, at least for Willi, truly painful. Instead, after leaving school, he threw himself into his work. Summers he worked the gravel pit for cash and winters he milked cows and made cheese. By the time he was thirty-five he had saved enough to buy a farm down the road from his parents. His father gave him ten cows and his mother some old cheese making equipment and he went into cheese making. Since he was intelligent and hard working he did very well. Even his mother, whose standards were high, said that Willi’s cheese was as good if not better than her own. Willi was not cut out for selling so he marketed his cheese through his parents. His father was the salesman, taking a cooler truck to the neighboring towns every Saturday excepting the Saturday of Christmas week. By the time he was forty- three Willi’s farm was paid for, he had a new, modern barn, and he had fifty cows, Holsteins, great producers of milk. He lived in the little farmhouse that went along with the property but drove to his mother’s every day at seven o’clock, for supper. Breakfast and lunch he managed on his own.
Willi was an even-tempered, happy man, just like his father, but it was obvious that he was lonely. Sometimes, at family gatherings when his parents huge living room was filled with brothers and sisters, brothers in law and sisters in law, nieces and nephews, he grew suddenly silent and working his way unobtrusively round the merry making crowd to the door, went home early. There were times when a person who knew how to read his pleasant, stoical mask could see that he was mildly depressed. The person who could do this best was Evelyn, with whom he was particularly close. One summer’s day when they were drinking coffee on the front porch of their parent’s place she said to him.
“Why don’t you find yourself a woman?”
“I’ve lived forty-three years without one and I haven’t grown any handsomer in that time that I have noticed.”
“O Willi you are always going on about how ugly you are. There are many women in this world who are more interested in character in a man than a pretty face. And besides, you may not be handsome but you have a noble face. Especially when women reach middle age a noble face is more attractive than a pretty one.”
“Well, whatever my face is I haven’t noticed a lot of women rushing up to look into it.”
“My goodness, Willi, you are going to be waiting a long time if you expect a woman to come up to your farm and tackle you in the cow yard. It is customary for the man to make some kind of effort. Maybe in the cities it’s different but out here things are still very traditional.”
“What kind of effort?”
“You could go to the church dances.”
“I can’t dance.”
“You could learn.”
“I don’t like dances.”
Evelyn screwed up her face and threw her hands into the air. “Well then, don’t.”
“It’s hard for a man my age to learn all that dancing and social stuff. There must be some other way. There must be women around like me who don’t like going to dances. Down home women, a bit on the frumpy side.”
Evelyn smiled. “One who likes to milk cows.”
“And make cheese.”
“I would be guessing they are rare.”
“Rare perhaps but still there must be the odd one.”
“Same as me give or take a year or two.”
“No. A younger woman would nag me. I don’t want to be nagged.”
“Middle aged women can nag too.”
“No doubt but on the whole, I’ve noticed they are less ambitious. Nagging comes from ambition.”
“My goodness, I thought you were asleep all these years, Willi.”
“I observe. I watch.”
“Well, I could ask around I suppose. Does it matter that she’s fat?”
“No. I’m a bit fat myself.”
“And what would be the main qualities of character that you would be looking for?”
“Good natured with a sense of humour.”
“A little taller would be OK. It would be hard to find one shorter.”
“What about money?”
Willi gave his sister an astonished look. “Do you mean I will have to pay for her?”
“No you silly man. I’m asking if she would have to have money.”
“No. Certainly not. I have lots of money. Well, not lots perhaps but more than I need.”
“Just asking. Would it matter if she’s lame?”
“Not as long as she can get around fairly well. And I would ask that she have a certain brightness to her. I wouldn’t want one of those sad women who talk of nothing but their ailments.”
“Well then,” Evelyn said, “I’ll ask around.”
At a September supper at their parents Evelyn told him, “I’m still looking.” On Christmas day she took Willi aside and said,
“I think I found somebody.”
“Yes really. She works at the bakery. She’s a baker so you have probably never seen her. She starts at midnight and goes home at nine in the morning. She’s not from around here. She came here perhaps three years ago. She lives in that old apartment building beside the post office. She’s a friend of Lilly’s.” (Lilly was the second sister)
“You told Lilly?”
“Of course. How do you think I’m going to find somebody if I don’t ask people?”
“Who else did you ask?’
“You don’t want to know.”
Willi looked sadly into his glass of beer. “I suppose everyone knows.”
“If you don’t tell people you want something Willi, then it is unlikely you are going to get it. Anyway, you better go in there on Saturday and buy some bread. On Saturdays she works until noon so you can get a look at her.”
“And she at me.”
“Oh she’s already had that.”
“Lilly showed her pictures.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said you are very handsome.”
“You are lying.”
“OK, then what did she really say?”
“She was brought up on a farm with horses. She said you remind her of a Percheron.”
Willi looked off into the distance and thought of that for a moment or two. Then he said. “ Maybe most people wouldn’t think so but I am a great admirer of Percherons and I think that is a very nice thing for her to say about me. What’s her name?”
“Roslyn. But everybody calls her Roz.”
“OK. I’ll go in this Saturday.”
After milking on Saturday Willi drove to town. To prepare he had a bath and shave, put on his best pair of jeans and a brand new plaid shirt. He polished his cowboy boots and combed his hair. On Evelyn’s advice he restrained himself from putting lotion in his hair. When he came into the bakery, fortunately, or at least it seemed so to Willi, Roz was serving another customer so he brought his two loaves of bread from the owner. He managed a few unobtrusive glances her way. She was taller than he was with a plump, reddish face. She looked tired as no doubt she was after working all night. She was about his age. Her hair was dark brown with a sprinkling of steel gray. You wouldn’t say she was beautiful but she was a pleasing looking woman. And if she was a friend of Lilly’s she would have a steadiness to her. Lilly didn’t hang out with flighty types. All in all he was pleased and he told Evelyn so at the next Sunday dinner.
“Well then,” said Evelyn, “we’ll have to go on to the next step.”
“You have to ask her out.”
“A picnic perhaps.”
“Evelyn, it’s February the sixteenth.”
“Oh yes. Well, you can take her to that new restaurant on 72.”
“How do I ask her?”
“Why you just step up to her and ask.”
“At the bakery. If you are at the bakery on Tuesday morning at nine she will be coming out to walk home. Not in the street, of course. Take her to the diner and buy her a coffee.”
Willi was so afraid of missing her that on Tuesday morning he took up his post outside the Post Office at 8:15. It was a frigid morning. He stood just inside the alley between the Post Office and the town hall to get out of the wind. The banks of snow were higher than his eye level but there was a section cleared in front of the Post Office giving a view of the bakery door. He had on long underwear, a ski suit, his fur hat tied down around his ears, two scarves, a pair of gigantic lined leather mitts and his vast, cumbersome overcoat but still he was cold.
Roz came out the bakery door and started along the far sidewalk towards her apartment. After a moment of hesitation Willi rushed through the opening in the bank and across the street at the angle necessary to intercept her. On the other side he went through another opening arriving on the sidewalk some twenty feet in front of her. Here he stood waiting for her to come up. Roz was looking down at her feet as she came along and almost ran into him.
“How long have you been here?” she asked. “You look like you are frozen solid.”
And indeed he did for the moisture of his breath had turned his moustache and his eyebrows a brilliant white with a kind of personal hoar frost.
“Not long.” he said.
He asked her if she would like coffee at the diner and she said yes. There Roz told him she didn’t like fancy restaurants any more than he did so that Sunday they went for a ride in Willi’s truck.
Willi’s truck was ancient. It was old when he bought it fifteen years before. For the first ten years it was a rusty green . Then Willi ground out the rust, filled it here and there and sprayed it with grey undercoating. Each year for the past five years he planned to sand it and put on the finish coats but he never got around to it. The undercoating was splotchy and the filling rough. He told people he never got around to the finish coat because he had so many other things to do. This was partially true but the more essential reason was that he couldn’t stand the thought of a brand new paint job being chipped and scarred by the rough gravel roads. He knew if he painted it he would be miserable every time he took it out of the yard. With the rough undercoat on it, touched up now and then with a spray can, he didn’t have to wince every time a piece of gravel pinged against his rocker panels. It was a work truck. It’s scarred and uneven exterior seemed as appropriate as the thick coating of rust on the engine panels of his old tractor.
Roz loved the truck. When Willi mentioned he planned to paint it she asked, “Why? It’s a beautiful old truck. Just right.” Willi was delighted although it was hard to tell from the severe expression on his face. It was the same with the house. When he showed her around mentioning plans for redoing this and redoing that Roz was unimpressed. “It needs to be cleaned, Willi, but why put in a new kitchen floor when the old one is perfectly serviceable?” And indeed it needed to be cleaned. It was not what most would call disgusting but close. Roz fairly itched to grab a pail and brush and start in right away but she restrained herself. The barn was different. You could eat off the channeled concrete floor. It smelt of cow, of course, but the clean fresh smell of the animals with a slight underlay of disinfectant. Bright plastic and shiny stainless steel. The cheese house was the same except there was the delicious, rich smell of the curing cheeses. When they came back to the house they had some of Willi’s cheese and Roz’s homemade bread for lunch. Then they went for a long walk down the gravel road past the snow-covered fields. It was a bright winter day, no wind, the sun shining and the sky a deep blue.
Roz and Willi got together for ten consecutive Sundays. As well, on Tuesdays and Fridays, Roz’s days off, they went to the diner for breakfast. They both liked the diner. The old woman who was the cook, owner, server and cleaner would have no truck with fancy new contraptions. She fried her eggs in a pan she had been using to fry eggs for over fifty years. Coffee was served in crockery cups bought at a yard sale years before. The place was sparkling clean but its cleanliness was appropriate, shining like a bright sun over a world comfortably worn and useful. Willi and Roz dawdled over coffee, gossiping with the old woman who knew every soul within fifty miles of the town and exactly how they were related to everyone else. She was a great mimic. Her rendition of the Mayor giving his pretentious speech at the Civic Holiday celebrations was so funny, so ridiculously accurate, Roz and Willi rolled in their chairs and laughed until their sides ached.
On the eleventh Sunday Roz was helping Willi in the barn. She was messaging oil into the udder of a cow while Willi stroked the cow’s flank to keep her calm. He kept on stroking while he said. “I suppose we could get married Roz.” Roz didn’t say anything but she smiled mightily at the cow’s udder. After a short pause Willi continued. “I know I’m not much but if you came to live here you could sleep in the night like a natural human being and in your old age you would have your own porch to sit on.” Roz got up off her stool and kissed him on the cheek. “Of course I’ll marry you, Willi; I thought you would never ask.” The banns were posted the next Sunday and they were married in the fall.
The following spring Willi and Evelyn were sitting on their parent’s front porch. It was a glorious spring day, the kind of day that only those who have gone through a hard, five month winter, can truly appreciate. They sat full in the warming sunshine as people in those parts always do in the first few weeks of spring. The snow was almost gone; the water running. The geese were back, tadpoles in the ponds and in the late evenings the coyotes gave out their mating calls in the woods to the north. Calves were frisking in the field beyond the yard and the fertile, musky smell of the newly uncovered earth rose into their nostrils, the most gorgeously rich smell in all of creation. Evelyn and Willi sat looking out for some time before Evelyn spoke. She pointed a finger at his old truck parked just beyond the porch, still sheathed in its covering of splotchy gray and said, “When, in heaven’s name, are you going to paint that truck, Willi?”
“Never!” said Willi in a triumphant tone which brought Evelyn’s head around to look at him curiously. “And why not?” she asked.
Willi smiled hugely. A bright twinkle, truly a wonderful sight to behold, rose in his eyes as he looked at his sister and said,
“Because Roz won’t let me.”