St. Anthony's Stories

Anna

She walked into the bar of Mimmo’s Café still clad in that awful pinstripe suit she thought made her look thinner. She’d pulled her hair back into a ponytail, but wisps still stuck to her sweaty cheeks. I was glad she wore a jacket so we didn’t both have to ignore her pit stains.

“I went ahead and ordered us a carafe, thirsty Thursday and all.” I said by way of greeting. Anna smiled wryly and filled her glass with the house red. She sipped and then sipped again, the muscles in her jaw flexing as she swallowed. At twenty-five, she already looked like a pro.

“I need to ask you a favor and I need you to not ask any questions.”

“I’m happy to do you a favor but we both know I’m not promising no questions.” She sat a little longer and then lit a cigarette. She smoked the whole thing down and then nudged it out in the black plastic ashtray between us.

“Can I come stay with you for a while?” I sat back in my seat and pulled a cigarette from her pack while I studied her. She met my gaze, her steady eyes giving away nothing.

Anna got married two years ago to the man we all assumed was the love of her life. And frankly, we were jealous. When Anna got into that car wreck, when she pulled the muscles in her lower back or whatever, she was told to take a warm bath in Epsom salts. She went out to the CVS, found the salts, got herself some tea and muscle rub and when she finally made it home to draw her bath, she discovered that their apartment bathtub was missing a stopper. So what did David do? He jerry-rigged a cloth stopper and a plastic cup and sat there at her feet, holding the cup in place so she could recline in her Epsom salts. That’s the kind of guy David was.

The only question was why on Earth Anna needed to leave her two-bedroom bungalow tucked away at the end of the cul-de-sac and that was not the question to ask.

“When?”

“Tomorrow. Or Saturday. I can wait until Saturday if you want.”

“Anna, if you need to come tomorrow, you should come tomorrow. I’ll clean out the spare room.”

She stared straight ahead into the mirror behind the bottles. She dropped her chin to her chest for a moment, then pulled her hair out of the ponytail, removed her earrings and set them on the bar. She shrugged that awful gray suit coat off her shoulders. She was wearing this magenta silk sleeveless blouse. I could see the curve of her biceps and deltoids. This was new.

“Thank you.” I put my hand on that newly defined arm muscle and squeezed.

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St. Anthony's Stories

Poppy

 

Poppy always requested Carla when her parents planned an evening out. It perplexed her mother because Carla wasn’t particularly entertaining. Other sitters came armed with activities that kept her occupied, but Poppy knew that if Carla came over, she’d happily let Poppy use her fountain pen while she watched television.

“Will you help me with my homework?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“I need to write a thank you letter. But I am not very good at spelling. Would you write it out? Just to help me with the words?”

Carla hesitated, as though she thought she might be aiding some cheating plot. Poppy could hear the opening notes of her favorite television show’s theme song. Carla shrugged, took out her pen and began to write while Poppy dictated.

Poppy watched as Carla’s thin, pale hand danced lightly across the page. The ink seemed to flow like the tiniest faucet, gracefully appearing on the paper. It glistened there for a moment before drying. The letters looked like art work.

When Carla was settled into Poppy’s father’s recliner, Poppy uncapped the fountain pen and began to duplicate the letter. She examined each character in Carla’s neat script and did her best to mimic it. The letters seemed to lift toward the top of the page, as though there were an imaginary string that pulled them northward. They canted slightly to the right, speeding toward the edge, and her G’s and Y’s looped effortlessly. Poppy spent the hours before her bed time writing the words over and over, trying to make her hand form the letters just like Carla’s did.

When Carla came into her room to turn out the light she stopped for a moment.

“Why do you try so hard to write like me?”

Poppy thought a moment. Carla’s long, straight blonde hair hung over one shoulder like a curtain. Poppy fingered her own coarse hair. When she was in first grade her mother explained that no matter what she did, her hair would never look like Carla’s or any of the other girls in school with straight, light colored locks. Poppy had resigned herself that her own reflection would never resemble girls like Carla.

“Your handwriting is pretty.”

“Huh. Thanks. Well, good night then.”

Poppy pulled the thank you notes, folded into dozens of tiny squares so it would fit into the palm of her hand, out from beneath her pillow. She could examine them in the square of blue light coming into the window from the street. It was close, but she could still tell the difference. Her A’s were too round and it was evident by the weight of her script that her writing was more deliberate than Carla’s.

It was ok. She would keep practicing.

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St. Anthony's Stories

Ben

He stood at the bar and stared through the front windows, watching the snow fall in what looked like white sheets. He’d been in Michigan five years and yet his southern heart was surprised over and over at the variations of winter that could occur here. He’d never imagined snow falling in sheets like rain, pulsing and driving with the wind, and yet, it did.

He thought of Jess at home with Alfred, sipping herbal tea, the two of them tucked beneath flannel and blankets, burrowed in. He was just weeks old and still seemed to want to crawl right back into Jess’ body, as though he was furious that he’d been evicted in the first place. And she, despite months of panic and anxiety, seemed to know just how to console him in his grief.

She called him Freddie. Much to Jess’ disgust, Ben called him Alf.

Ben would have thought a snowstorm of this nature would drive people indoors. Instead, it drove them to their local watering hole. In this case their brewery. He fingered the barn wood bar that he’d worked tirelessly to lacquer to smoothness, the tiles he’d painstakingly placed behind the taps, the copper ceiling he’d put in, late on summer night listening to James Brown. He was proud of it. It had been his part of the dream, carefully designed and crafted, day in and day out, ignoring her impatient pleas to hurry because they were nearly out of money and needed to open.

But this part, the people, they were hers. These people, the dozens of them that sat swaddled in down, Sorel boots dripping snowmelt, hair plastered to their faces and necks in odd ways thanks to the snow and sweat and the wool hats that they crammed over their ears, they’d be here until close. He knew this. Jess would love it.

“Heya, man, how about a stout? Feels like stout kinda day, right? Actually, can you tell me a bit about it? What’s it taste like?” Like a stout. Ben poured a taste in a glass and slid it across the bar. “Oh, yeah, that’s good, real good. I’ll have a pint of that. Actually, nah, I’ll take a Pale. Yeah, I’ll go with a Pale Ale. That’s good, too, yeah?”

Ben stared at him and shrugged. “If you like Pales.”

“Huh. Yeah. I’ll go with the Pale.”

Ben poured the beer, marked the tab and turned back to the window. He heard the fellow in his red and black plaid turn to his friend, “not super friendly here are they?”

This was never his dream.

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St. Anthony's Stories

Di

Di was late. The 65-mile drive to the airport seemed to take hours. She found her right leg extended, toe pointed, as if it were pushing on an imaginary accelerator on the passenger side floorboard. She should have insisted on renting a car or at the very least scheduling the airport shuttle instead of giving in to her mother’s protests. Her mother seemed to take offense at the idea that Di would get to the airport through any other way, as though it were a reflection on her parenting skills.

The interstate highway widened from four lanes to six and then again to eight and Di watched the cars stream around them on both sides and closed her eyes and leaned her head against the headrest. It was almost painful to watch and yet, a perfect symbol. Her mother, the slow moving piece of driftwood plodding downstream as debris rushed past her on all sides.

“You’re quiet. What are you thinking?” Di wanted to turn to her and scream “None of your business! Stay out of my head!”

“Nothing, mom. I’m fine.” There was a moment and her mother seemed to chew on this.

“I know he looks bad but the doctors say he’ll rebound. We just have to give him some more time.” Clearly she was fine to let Di into her own head.

“I know.”

“It’s so hard to talk at home. It’s why I wanted to drive you today.” Di looked at her out of the corner of her eye. It was easy to assume that his near comatose state meant he couldn’t hear anything, but they all knew better. There had never been anything wrong with Ethan’s brain, his body just continually refused to cooperate. And yet, after this recent scare, it was hard to tell what her brother could hear, what he absorbed and what didn’t penetrate. So they’d spent the weekend talking cheerily about Di’s cousins, the Chiefs rotten season, where Di might take her next vacation, her recent trips to visit the satellite offices in Portland and Denver. Her mother told her about the places she and her father had visited before she and Ethan were born. Everything was lighthearted and Di was exhausted.

“I know.”

“Thank you for the—help. Having someone to take care of him for an hour or two, it makes such a difference. I’d never, ever tell him that. But sometimes I just get in the car and drive around the block and sit there. It’s so nice to just be alone.”

“Mom, the caregivers can handle it if something happens.”

“Yes, well.” She made a show of glancing in both mirrors and checking her blind spot before changing lanes. “I know.”

They rode in silence. The whir of the defroster and the rhythmic tick of the turn signal lulled Di. She began to feel her right leg relax.

“I sure wish you could take a later flight so we could get lunch or a cup of coffee, even.” Di tried not to sigh. She looked at the clock on the dash for what seemed like the eleventh time.

“Well, I’m so late you might actually get your wish,” she joked. Her mother seemed to deflate and she realized the joke wasn’t so funny after all. She put her hand over her mother’s. She held it there as she looked out across the flat grey and brown landscape. The only things on the horizon were the hotel and restaurant chains, cropping up like mushrooms and glowing neon. She could be anywhere in the country, the sight was so generic.

Di found her phone in her purse, readied her boarding pass and put her drivers license in her pocket. As they approached the terminal she slung her laptop bag over her shoulder. “Don’t park, Mom. Just drop me off, there isn’t time.” She thought if she hurried she might grab a coffee before she boarded. “Look there’s a spot right there.” On second thought, she’d just wait for a cocktail after take off.

Her mother steered into the gap in the drop-offs lane and Di leaned across to put her lips to her cheek. She rounded the car to pull her carryon out of the trunk, marveling again at the crap her mother continued to carry around even after her father’s death (golf clubs? she didn’t even play golf!). Her mother was there, sliding her cool dry hand into her own.

“I need this, Di. I needed you. Thank you.”

Nothing that came to Di’s mind seemed appropriate, so instead she squeezed her hand back. Her mother’s eyes were full as she circled Di’s waist with her thin arm for a last, awkward half-embrace.

“I love you, Mom.” Di squeezed one final time. “I have to go.”

 

Di navigated the airport like the professional she was. The journey from the curb to her business class seat was remarkable only in that she recalled so little of it. It was as if she’d gone to sleep and awoken in her seat, whiskey neat in her hand, some dreadful rom-com on the screen in front of her. She later wouldn’t even be able to recall the scene that caused her such distress, but suddenly, there she was, weeping. Weeping.

She put her forehead into her hand, trying to conceal her wet face and congested snuffling from her seatmate, a man in business casual khakis and a polo shirt with an emblem on the left shoulder, who appeared to be asleep.

Then a napkin appeared on her tray table.

“Flying does it,” he said.

“I don’t even know what happened, it was this stupid movie—“

“I don’t cry anywhere but 35,000 feet in the air. Ask my wife. She thinks I have a heart of stone. Get my in an airplane…” he shrugged as if to say, “Who knew?”

“Huh.”

“I think it’s the pressure. Does something to your emotions. It’s like a cork popping.” He leaned his seat back and shut his eyes. “It’s a thing. Google it.”

 

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St. Anthony's Stories

Bernie

“Merry Christmas, Bern.”

“You should say Happy Holidays, Pats. Not everyone celebrates Christmas.”

“Tomato, toh-mah-to.”

Bernie settled onto the barstool at the corner of the Formica bar. Patsy placed a glass with an orange and a maraschino cherry floating in caramel colored alcohol in front of him. He breathed it in, feeling its warmth before he sipped it.

This was the thing Bernie most looked forward to on Christmas evening. An old fashioned at Jack’s, the only place he knew in southwest St. Louis that was open at eight o’clock on Christmas night. It wasn’t a tradition. He’d begun to find tradition tiresome. His traditions were midnight mass followed by sleepless nights putting together some infernal plastic toy on Christmas Eve, tiny hands grabbing and pulling him out of bed a few hours later, eagerly awaiting Santa’s bounty. That twenty-four hours had become rote; just as his youngest began to sleep later and find less magic in the Christmas morning, his oldest was having her own babies and the cycle started anew for Bernie and Millie.

Forty-four years of this. It was enough tradition for one lifetime.

Five years ago things changed. Maybe it was six. Bernie didn’t keep track. Millie was too far-gone. He and the kids agreed–well, most of them–that it was time to allow someone else to care for her. The decision was agonizing, but now, sipping his old fashioned, Bernie remembered that she barely noticed the difference between the home they’d owned most of their marriage and the suite she’d been moved into at St. Boniface. When she had moments of clarity and looked at Bern with terrified, confused eyes and asked where she was, it broke his heart. But those happened rarely.

After Millie went to live at St. Boniface, everything changed. The kids began to have holidays at their in-laws. Chuck and Joan and Alec and Becky alternated inviting him to their homes for the holiday, but no one came to the big old house on Mead Street anymore. Perhaps this should have bothered Bernie, but he was relieved.

“How’s Millie, Bern?” Patsy stopped momentarily in front of him.

“She’s good. She loves the socks. You really shouldn’t have,” Bernie replied.

“Hey Bern! Why don’t you take a vacation? Go somewhere warm? I gotta timeshare in Fort Meyers, I’ll cut ya a deal.” Ronnie was a fixture so permanently perched on his barstool he resembled a gargoyle.

“No thanks, Ron.”

“Ah, c’mon. You got, what, like a dozen kids? Can’t they look after your old lady?”

“Eight.” Bernie sipped his old fashioned and let his eyelashes rest on his cheeks for a millisecond. Fort Meyers sounded blissful. There’d be people there his age, the warm humid air would lubricate the creaks in his joints. As long as Millicent shuffled through the corridors of St. Boniface, he’d be here.

What was so wrong with here, anyway? He looked around the room, mostly empty but for a young couple with their heads bowed together at a table in the corner, Ronnie and himself. Patsy played Handel’s Messiah on repeat. The tinsel and colored lights were timeless in their garishness, and the glints of primary colors reflected in the bottles behind the bar. Patsy polished glasses and stared out the window. Ronnie had lost interest in selling his timeshare and sat with his glasses perched on the end of his nose as he worked through his puzzle book.

He wasn’t sure if this was happiness. His guilt at leaving his wife, at being relieved to escape his children and their sullen teenaged offspring, at ignoring the slow decline of the house he and Millie had devoted themselves to for decades kept him from true, unfettered happiness. But this peaceful moment of contentment that he’d taken for himself every day for the last five years, was close enough.

This wasn’t horseshoes, after all.

 

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St. Anthony's Stories

Anton

Even in her illness, pale cheeks ruddy and eyes bright with fever, her thumbs steadily tapped on the glossy surface of her phone. He watched her intently and then marveled at the speed with which the screen changed from white (texting) to blue (more texting, this time with photos and a big thumbs up) to photos in some other application he didn’t understand. He saw a flash and her peaked, unsmiling face appear on the screen.

“Why do you put picture of yourself at hospital? No one want to see you like this,” he said.

“Just because.”

“Why you want everyone to know you are sick? Why not take vacation from pictures?” Anton grumbled half to himself, half for her benefit.

“My friends will wonder if I’m okay.”

The nurse called her name and Klara stuffed her phone in the pocket of her puffy pink coat and stalked to the front desk. The nurse handed her a clipboard with a stack of paperwork and then gestured in Anton’s direction. Anton watched as Klara shook her head, her long chestnut hair streaked with yellow bleach streaks. Anton’s heart felt heavier every time his eyes took in the carnage she’d imposed on her beautiful locks and he looked away.

He knew what Klara was telling the nurse—that he could speak English, but his reading and writing ability were abysmal. It frustrated him to look at the words on a page and not make heads or tales of them, he the poet, the voracious reader in his own country, now unable to fill out a simple form for his sick daughter.

She returned to her seat and set to scribbling. He pulled out his own phone, waving it at her.

“I have to take this,” he announced. “It is the restaurant.” She stared as if to communicate that she did not care if it was the zoo, his calls were none of her concern.

Anton answered and spoke loudly to his assistant manager, explaining in Ukrainian that he was at the hospital with his lovely daughter, that she was very ill he was deeply worried, distraught in fact, so great was his concern for her well being. Alek would have to cover the restaurant for the remainder of the evening; there was no other option. He couldn’t afford to close the doors, even for a few hours.

Klara understood Ukrainian, this he knew; yet she gave no indication that she heard him. He raised his voice. Heads turned in his direction as his deep bass filled the room.

“Dad, shh.”

He scowled at her and walked into the vestibule, pulling his sock hat further over his ears against the chill. When he returned, Klara was speaking to the nurse. He picked up her clipboard from the seat of his chair and glanced at it. He still couldn’t make heads or tails of most of the lines, but he recognized his address and phone number. On the top line, however, his eyes froze. He felt something that he had carried with him all these years across oceans, through lean years in studio apartments, watching his life in Ukraine fade slowly away, he felt it fracture. A slice of it fell away as he stared at his daughter’s handwriting.

Name: Clara

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St. Anthony's Stories

Leisel

            Leisel didn’t decide to become a vegetarian. It was simply assumed. No one in her family ate meat, though her father occasionally snuck a cheeseburger when he thought no one would notice. Leisel’s mom either didn’t detect his carnivorous indiscretion or she chalked it up to a lapse in judgment for the sake of familial harmony. Leisel could smell the meat on him, though; his body odor shifted, became danker and muskier. Leisel always knew.

She did remember becoming a vegan. She was eleven, the summer before sixth grade. The day was white hot and as she rode her Schwinn up the driveway, sweat dripping off her bangs and into her eyes, she saw a yellow moth caught in the grill of her grandmother’s sedan. She’d stopped, still straddling the bicycle, and watched the nearly translucent yellow wings flutter in the breeze, trying to convince herself that what she observed was just a little bit of life left in the creature’s smashed exoskeleton.

“We can’t save them all, ducky,” Gran said, letting her hand rest softly on Leisel’s sweaty hair.

Leisel decided right then that she would save as many things as she could. At eleven, this seemed like a reasonable commitment. It didn’t take long before she began to realize just what this meant. Her dedication did not waver. When she thought of the chicken in its tiny cage laying eggs for her baked goods, she quit eating eggs. When it dawned on her that her loafers we made of the large, gentle-eyed animals that watched her from their pastures as she drove to school, she stopped wearing leather. She often thought of that moth, the seemingly insignificant being that gave its life so her Gran could babysit while her parents went to the movies. Everyone thought she’d grow out this phase.

“You have admirable dedication, Leisel. It is a slippery slope, having a heart and conscience as large as yours, just remember that.” Gran said.

Leisel had never been out of Minnesota when she met Peter during her third year of college. He was wiry and coiled like a spring from his curly hair to his taut calves. He walked on the balls of his feet, bouncing almost imperceptibly, and his eyes darted quickly, always watching, assessing, considering. They graduated and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in an old, drafty brick building in St. Paul. They found jobs, he as a community organizer and she collecting signatures for various environmental causes on street corner. Their passion for causes stoked their relationship. They consumed one another like flames ravishing a meadow. Leisel thought she’d never be full, that she’d always crave more of Peter’s voice, his observations, his long, thin hands gesticulating wildly, spearing words as he spoke and holding tightly to her hips as they embraced.

One day he sat on the coffee table in front of her, his hands clasped between his knees, his eyes focused on her face, not scanning the room. She felt afraid of this attention. He told her he had to return to Montana, to his family’s ranch in Lolo, his grandfather wasn’t well. Leisel felt the tears prick her eyelids as she melted into the couch cushions.

“Come with me, Lees.”

Peter spent most of the two day drive warning her about various things about Montana: the bears, the roads, the gun-toting locals. He conceded that Missoula, just to the north of Lolo, was more liberal and progressive than most of Montana, but assured her that this was a blue oasis in a sea of red and she should not be fooled.

Leisel was not afraid.

He did not tell her about all the meat. Peter’s parents were certain that vegetarianism was a passing fad; that humans were simply meant to eat meat. They weren’t sure what vegan even meant and made little effort to accommodate Leisel’s diet. She ate the occasional salad and slice after slice of white bread. She was always hungry, but terrified that sneaking food between meals would offend Peter’s broad shouldered, vociferous mother.

Finally, Peter promised to take her out for a full meal. He took her to his favorite restaurant in Missoula, the one with more than one vegetarian entrée on the menu. Leisel’s mouth watered as she scanned the menu.

“May I get you something to drink?” Their waiter wore tortoiseshell glasses and a knit cap pushed back on his head. His slim black jeans were tucked behind the tongue of his Converse and Leisel felt her shoulders relax. There wasn’t a belt buckle in sight. “If you are interested in a glass of wine, I’d recommend this Cote du Rhone. This is a limited production and we have the only cases sold in the state of Montana. It is worth every penny, in my opinion.”

Leisel raised her eyebrows. “That’s a strong endorsement. Why so good?”

“This wine is a whole different wine drinking experience.” He shifted his weight as though he were ready to tell a story. “It’s like a meal. It tastes like dark, smoked meat. And—the richness, it’s hard to describe. I’m not much of a hunter, like, I only get one animal a year, right? But this wine, it smells like that hunting smell.”

Leisel recoiled. “Hunting smell?”

“Yeah, you know. That mixture of the earth and the snow and the firs and the animal itself. You know, that smell? It’s completely, well, unique. It’s rich and deep–it’s like a full-body encounter. I get a little shiver every time I smell it. It’s the best smell, it’s being alone, in the woods. It’s primal.”The waiter stopped and looked at her. She was nodding. “I get that shiver when I drink this wine.”

“I’ll have a glass of that, please.”

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