“Morning,” Robert mumbled, scratching his disheveled hair as he emerged from the narrow hall leading to the kitchen.
Charlotte was up already, sipping coffee at the small table just beneath the window. Gray light filtered through the sheer curtains.
“Got the sports there?”
Charlotte slid the section toward her husband’s cup.
“What time is that meeting?” She asked, not looking up.
“Nine-o-clock,” he nodded, slowly, looking out the window. “I meet with Selkirk at nine.”
Charlotte put the paper down. “You ready?”
“Not much to get ready for, hon.”
“Who else is he talking to?”
“He’s already met with Avery and Sims. He meets with Shamanski at ten.”
“When will he decide?”
“We could know as soon as this afternoon.”
“You’ll do just fine, honey,” she offered, picking up the paper again.
“I hope so. I mean, I think so. Hell, we shouldn’t even have to go through all this. He should have just named me sales manager when Bob stepped down.”
“He’s going to pick you. He’s just got to make it look like he’s giving everyone a shot.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Robert folded his arms across his chest. “Avery and Sims have both put up some good numbers.”
Charlotte tilted her head and pursed her lips. “So have you. Besides, you get along with all those guys and, anyway, you’ve been there the longest. It’s your turn.”
“Hell, it was my turn four years ago.” Robert’s voice tailed away. He looked blankly at the paper stretched across his lap.
He would probably know by noon today. Fifteen years selling windows and vinyl siding, two years short of forty and the question, “Was this as good as it would get?” Five salesmen, an eight-by-ten office with its imitation wood and fabric chairs, matching pastel colors and a couple starving artist prints, four walls and a door, but an office. “Sales Manager,” he repeated to himself, “finally……maybe.” He shook his head slowly. He was not so sure as Charlotte.
The clock snapped seconds to the sink below as the couple fell to reading, sipping coffee,
the silence of their apartment mornings.
“Hey, Rob,” Charlotte broke the quiet. “Look at this,” extending the paper across the formica table. “Bernice Coleman is getting married!”
Robert’s brow wrinkled with his squint. “Bernice Coleman?? Where do I know that name from…..?
“Bernice Coleman, Rob, remember? From junior high…..?
“Bernni………junior high……oh, hell yes! Big Bernice Coleman! Buffet Bernice….”
“….Airship, the Human Continent, Blimpus…..” his face in a broad smile.
“Robert!” Charlotte offered with her own smirk, “be nice!”
“No kidding, Bernice Coleman is getting married?”
“Yeah; there’s no picture though.”
“Says she’s marrying a guy named Jeff Malicki.” Charlotte looked up. “That sound familiar to you?”
Robert leaned across the table to read the small, square announcement. “Doesn’t ring a bell. There was a Steve Malicki in high school with us, remember? But no Jeff. Maybe it’s his brother?”
“I don’t think so; maybe a cousin? It says this guy’s from Cincinnati, but he works down in the mill off Broadway.”
“Isn’t that where Steve’s dad worked?” Robert’s voice drifted as he looked back at the sports page. “Damn it! The Indians lost to Chicago last night! They were up 4-2 in the eighth when I went to bed. Couldn’t close it out again. Damn bullpen!”
“I haven’t seen Bernice Coleman in maybe ten years,” Charlotte said, as much to the window as to her husband.
The sky was warming to a pink above the roofs along Henry Street. Their small apartment faced east. Charlotte always liked the sun with breakfast.
“Maybe once or twice since high school……..I wonder what she’s doing. Maybe she’s happy now……” Her voice trailed off.
“What, hon?” Robert looked up.
Charlotte fingered her thin gold wedding band. “She sure wasn’t very happy back then.”
Robert folded the paper and picked up his coffee. “Hell no, she wasn’t.” He looked up at the clock. “Whoops, I’ve got to get going; could be a big day.”
Charlotte turned from the window and nodded. “Could be the big day.”
She watched him disappear into the bathroom at the end of the hall. Though thirty pounds heavier than when he last pulled on a helmet, his walk still reminded her of the high school quarterback she first dated when she was sixteen. She smiled and looked out the window once again. The sun had moved a little higher in the sky. Charlotte thought back.
* * *
The steeple shadow at St. John’s Church stretched out onto the asphalt playground that filled the space between Elmwood Avenue and the parish school from which students had been exiting for about ten minutes, girls in white blouses and blue skirts, boys in light blue shirts and navy pants, some cradling books across their chests, others shouldering canvas bags, the air filled with the sweet scent of early April.
Three bus lines formed at the bottom of the yard, along Elmwood. Two old nuns directed the children. With them was Jeffrey Pope, twenty-three year-old, first-year, sixth grade teacher. He monitored line three, the students for the bus that went north, up Turney Road.
Bernice Coleman leaned clumsily on the rusted wire fence that marked the border of the schoolyard and the red brick bungalow of Irv and Lorain Jenson, gnarled old Methodists who thirty years before had refused to sell their property to “those people” and, therewith, created the peculiar outcrop of yard and house that to this day jutted out into the small paved ocean of the St. John parish rectangle.
As usual, Bernice was alone, standing with her back to the noisy lines of children, appearing to be enthralled by the new yellow on the Jensons’ forsythia bushes, but, in truth, still siesmographically attuned to the noise and chatter at the busses. She looked at the flowers, at the birds feeders, at the pattern in the oil leaked on the driveway. She looked at anything besides the other children.
“There she is,” she heard a voice above the others. “Hey, airship!” another called out.
Bernice pressed herself further into the old fence, grit her teeth, and drew a deep breath as giggles erupted behind her. She folded her arms across her chest. Her threadbare green jacket bunched at her neck where stringy black hair fell awkwardly on her shoulders. She closed her eyes tight.
That morning she had fainted during Mass, the second time that year. She had to be helped from church by Sister Timothy and Mr. Pope. It was not easy for them to do.
A bus pulled up, and the noise of the children rose.
“Bernice!” a man’s voice called.
She shuddered. It was Mr. Pope. Mr. Pope who had been so kind to her. Mr. Pope with the warm smile and the stories about Mark Twain, the teacher whose name had begun to appear in the margins of her notebooks as early as late September. Mr. Pope of her daydreams; Mr. Pope who had to help pick her up in church today……..her Mr. Pope.
“Hey, Blimpus, get a move on!” a boy chirped.
“Who said that?!” Pope turned toward the end of the Turney bus line. “ Kowolski, was that you?!”
“No Mr. Pope.”
“Bernice, the bus is here.”
She turned to see Robert Kowolski, quarterback on the junior high football team and the most popular boy in seventh grade, bringing up the end of her bus line. Behind him, Jeffrey Pope stood smiling, waving her on. She reached down for her books and stretched her too-long strides away from the fence.
Children watched from the windows as she drew near. Sandy Kennedy, sitting beside Charlotte Crowe near the front, puffed out her cheeks, rolled back her head, and slumped down in the seat. Laughter erupted.
“Settle down in there!” Mr. Pope yelled out as Bernice arrived beside him.
“Don’t let them bother you, Bernice,” he offered pleasantly as she took the first step up.
She didn’t say a word. She could not look at him. She could not look at the other children.
Mr. Pope stepped back.
The yellow doors snapped shut
* * *
The bright sacristy light cut long shadows into the sanctuary. Father Bethard selected vestments from the tall oak cabinet. In the smaller room off the other side of the altar, two young boys pulled on their black cassocks and white surplices. Outside, the chrome fenders of their bicycles, a Schwinn with a broken speedometer and a red Murray with a metal basket fastened to the handlebars, picked up the first gleam of daylight.
One of them extended a long-handled staff to light one large candle at each end of the gray marble altar. The other carefully placed the heavy crystal cruets on a small table nearby.
The sound of kneelers dropping to the tile floor marked the arrivals of the faithful who gathered for early morning Mass. Most of them were women; almost all of them were old. They placed themselves unevenly throughout the first ten pews. Here, two women together; there, a husband and wife; but mostly they were separate, looking from above like the scattered notes of a dissonant piece of music.
Most prayed with bowed heads, some working worn glass beads. Others stared intently at the glow of candlelight against the gold tabernacle. Thin pages of small black missals, stained brown from the decades, trembled gently, as tough there were a breath of air moving through the long, mostly dark church. Lips moved imperceptibly through prayers, whispered petitions for friends who come to Mass no more, families who never came, images in mirrors at night. Some prayed just because that is what they did.
The morning sky began to fill the fragments of stained glass, colors around Madonna and child, as the sanctuary bell rang. The two boys emerged from the side followed closely by the old priest in his purple robes, carrying before him the gold chalice. There was a rustle in the church as the people rose.
As the thirty minute liturgy went on, the low hum of waking had grown in the world outside the church, rising to the sights and sounds of Friday. Traffic filled the road that passed the steeple and the air, so sweet before the sun had found its objects, now hung with exhaust and the smell of diesel busses. Sidewalks now chattered with the click of feet, the murmuring of voices.
Already snaking slowly toward the center of the city, cars now stopped altogether at the intersection three blocks north of Saint John’s. Hornblasts pierced the air; people on the sidewalks winced. As the light changed three then four times without movement, drivers strained to look. Some got out. Knots of three and four clustered, pointing north. Others sat and fumed, gesturing to passengers. Some slapped the wheel, glanced at their watches, and mumbled. Some shifted gears and read the paper. A few just watched the others.
In the distance a pulsing siren’s wail began to rise, and twisting red and white lights clamored toward the intersection. As the sound drew closer, more drivers stepped from cars. Some walked toward the light.
A man in a light brown Ford had tried to turn toward town from the west. In his hurry, he had misjudged both the light and the speed of oncoming traffic and pulled out in front of a delivery truck.
All at once there was the blare of a horn, squealing brakes, and a strange, dull thump. The truck hit the car squarely at the driver’s door. The deliveryman, though bruised on the forehead and dazed, jumped from the truck and ran to the car.
The corners began to fill like the stands around a boxing ring. People pushed forward, some with their hands to their mouths. Several ran out toward the car.
The driver was stretched out across the front seat. Blood covered his head, now lying against the passenger’s armrest. His legs were pinned in the tangle of metal, vinyl, and glass that had been his door.
Medics who sprung from the ambulance tried to free him as the sun brought morning to the city, the odd blend of blue and gray, light and dark as life finds its pace once again.
The driver’s watch gleamed in the light. His right hand was hooked on his shirt pocket, as if reaching for something there.
Two boys on bicycles joined the crowd. One pressed forward for a better view. The other, with a broken speedometer, shook his head and peddled off toward home.
Father Bethard, on his way to Pre-Cana classes at the cathedral downtown, rushed forward to the mangled car.
“You may be all he needs now, Father,” a medic said quietly as the priest arrived.
Two blocks from the accident, Robert fidgeted in his old Dodge, looking at his watch, up at the traffic, and back at his watch again. “Of all the days for some jackass to hold up traffic.! Jesus Christ!”
Charlotte was hanging up her robe, having cleaned the kitchen and dressed. On the radio, a man cautioned drivers to avoid Hillside and North streets: “there was a damage accident there with traffic stopped in all directions. Police and rescue crews were on the scene.” People were advised to seek alternate routes.
She slowly closed the closet door, turned toward the radio, and paused. The morning light now filled the kitchen. She poured another cup of coffee and looked out the window, hoping that her Robert had cleared the intersection.
In offices and factories, people settled to their daily tasks and thought about their weekends.
And in the kitchen of her parents’ home, a block north of Hillside, Bernice Coleman sat with her mother, talking about florists and caterers and waiting for Jeff Malicki to arrive to take her to the cathedral in his light brown Ford.
John P. Kristofco lives in Ohio, just outside Cleveland. Over the last twenty years his poems, short stories and essays have appeared in more that one hundred different publications, including: The Cape Rock, Folio, Blueline, The Rockford Review, The Cimarron Review, Rattle, The Rockhurst Review, The Chaffin Journal and The Storyteller.