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.

 

Advertisements
Standard
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

Standard
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.”

Standard