By Caryn Coyle
It was too warm in the church. Jack could feel sweat pooling at the bottom of his spine. He thought of jiggling his arm out of the sleeve of his overcoat and shrugging it off. But he would have to stand up to do it, drawing attention to himself.
Jack's mother, Elizabeth, sat beside him on the pew. His six-year-old daughter, Genevive, on her other side. Elizabeth held a linen handkerchief with tiny flowers embroidered around the hem and it smelled of lavender. The scent was faint, like it wasn't really there. He could feel his mother's arm brushing up against his, and he knew without looking that she was dabbing at the corners of her eyes with the handkerchief. Jack placed his arm around her. His shoulders drooped. Heavy. Painful.
The gospel according to Matthew.
Jack reached for his mother's arm and Genevive held her hand as they stood up. Elizabeth folded her arm inside Jack's. He could not shrug his overcoat off.
Under it, Jack wore his grey pin striped suit. The slacks were itchy; wool. His thighs were tingling at exactly the spot where he had just sat on the wooden pew.
Wet, clammy sweat spread down his back. Jack looked at his mother who stared straight ahead and he glanced beyond her at Genevive. His daughter turned when he looked at her. Big gray eyes, like her mother's. She smiled at her father. A tight grin, he could imagine her teeth gritting behind her closed lips. His heart felt like a thick mass of worms.
Jack focused on the front of the church. He couldn't see the priest. He was glad. He had chosen the last pew. Around his neck, his tie clamped his throat. He thought of Andrea, ashamed of what had attracted him to her. It was too intimate. Uncomfortable. Wrong.
Andrea was beautiful. Luminous. There was a bluish quality to her skin, the color of skim milk. Her eyes were gray and they were sharp, not kind. They would penetrate. She had a round face, framed with raven hair that curled and waved. And a voice that was smooth, haughty. When she laughed, she would gasp in short, soft breaths.
Jack had little experience with women. No sisters. He'd never had a girlfriend, no one long term.
The first time he saw Andrea, they were in the same ballroom, the Sheraton in Boston. Jack was on leave from the Canadian Air Corp. He'd attended the football game, Holy Cross over Boston College, and his American buddies were jubilant. He wore his uniform since he didn't have a tuxedo. The laughter excited him. So did the chorus of voices. The clink of glasses. The band playing Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.
Jack's home had never sounded like that. The surge he felt that night, the way his head turned from one friend to the other, exhilarated him. None of them had seen action yet. They were still in training. He'd met the Americans in the Civilian Air Cadet Corp in New Hampshire right after Pearl Harbor. They were all too young to qualify for flight training. Jack had just graduated from high school. But they were anxious to get into the sky, and the time he had spent in New Hampshire had helped Jack pass his more rigorous flight tests in Halifax when he entered the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Reunited with his American buddies, shouting over each other, they sat at a table with a thick, white cloth. None of his companions had gotten up to ask anyone to dance yet. The women in the ballroom all appeared to be paired off on dates and Jack and his buddies hadn't drunk enough to cut in on them.
Sudden light from the windows illuminated the room, startling them. Bright. Annoying. The noise, the music, even the dancing continued at first. Uninterrupted.
Andrea was in a crushed velvet dress that caressed her breasts and her hips. She stepped away from a man in a tuxedo on the dance floor. Jack was unable to take his eyes off of her. She had a revealing neckline, a dark line of cleavage he could see from across the room. There was a string of milky pearls on her flesh. She was sleek and expensive looking and he remembered his hands, his face, his whole body sweating.
The band stopped and the crowd quieted, murmuring. Jack watched her. Andrea's hands floated up from her sides, like a bird's wings, like a ballerina. She covered her mouth, but her eyes – piercing gray against white as bone skin —focused on him.
"Across the street."
"The Cocoanut Grove's on fire!"
Jack jumped up from the table. The dance floor was mobbed and he pushed his way through. He brushed against the woman he had been watching. Their eyes locked. She smiled at him with an odd, flirty tilt to her head.
"'Scuse me," Jack said, flustered.
Outside on the sidewalk, it was chaotic. Loud. Fire trucks clanged, their hoses littered the sidewalk and the street. He had to hop over them. The heat felt like summer on the last Saturday in November.
He moved with the crowd toward the Cocoanut Grove. As he crossed the street, between fire trucks, he realized the revolving doors were stuck. Behind the glass were faces, too many faces. Discolored lips pressed against the glass. A black hole of a nostril crunched above a flat, gray cheek. Jack gulped smoke and pushed his way toward the doors. He would never see death that close in the war, flying hundreds of feet above his targets.
The glass in the immobile doors was smashed with an ax and his hands turned black pulling on the stiff, heavy limbs. The stench of burning bodies made him nauseous. One arm he grabbed was encased in velvet, like the tight dress of the woman who had smiled at him.
An ache between Jack's eyes thumped and he pressed on the spot at the top of his nose as the gospel ended. His mother released him and Jack shrugged off his overcoat. He was relieved to have it off and he sat down, folding the coat on his lap. Jack's mother rested her gloved hand on his. He looked at her. Elizabeth's eyes were faded, like the blue in them had been washed out. She smiled at him, briefly and turned away.
Genevive's legs, in dark green wool leggings, jiggled. He felt the vibration through the seat of the pew and smiled. Andrea would have jabbed Genevive with her elbow, hissing at her to stop. He was glad that she wasn't there.
Before Andrea, his life had been calm. Jack had worked with his parents, running the family business.
When his parents opened the shop, Jack had watched them discussing what they wanted to call it. His mother was deaf and his parents spoke in gestures; their fingers and palms flying for emphasis. Jack's mother read lips, and the sounds she made were all in a monotone. He could remember his mother telling his father that a tea house was too fancy even though most of their customers preferred tea to coffee. Jack's father annunciated each word and he carefully told her that he liked the idea of calling it a coffee shop, because he thought it sounded more informal. Cozy.
His mother baked muffins, small cakes and cookies to go with the tea and coffee. She deep fried donuts and crullers. Jack helped her with the batter and removed the baked goods from the pans with a thick oven mitt and a large spatula. Jack's dad would duck in between the swinging double doors to the kitchen, placing an arm around his mother's waist and kissing her.
His father died of a heart attack, standing at the cash register and Jack's mother stopped baking. When World War II ended, Jack took over the coffee shop.
Jack thought his marriage to Andrea would be blissful, comfortable; like the one his parents had had. The elation he felt whenever he saw Andrea was akin to the pride that fizzed from his chest to his head when he lifted off, flying in the war. And like the fright he felt when he was in the air, dodging the enemy, Jack was nauseous whenever he was near Andrea.
He had been in the back, sliding a fresh batch of muffins into the large, industrial oven. Jack was proud of the stainless steel oven. He'd purchased it the year before when the muffins started selling better than he'd ever imagined. Jack liked to experiment, make up combinations: bacon and cornbread, spinach and cheddar, blueberries in lemon batter. The batch he'd just slid into the oven was one of his best sellers, chocolate chip with walnuts.
Beth, his only employee had stood in the doorway between the storefront and the kitchen. No one was in the shop. Mid-afternoons were slow.
"Can you keep an eye on the muffins?" Jack asked, pulling off his oven mitt and tilting his head toward the industrial oven.
He picked up the phone on the wall behind the counter, next to the cash register.
The bumping sound of the dial clicked with each number. He listened to the ringing, once, twice. His hand tightened on the earpiece. The phone rang a third time. He took a deep breath. Good. Andrea wasn't there. Jack exhaled and thought he'd let it ring once more, just to be sure.
The receiver on the other end dropped, banging; loud in his ear.
"Andrea? Are you there?"
Nothing. Jack could hear the oven door opening.Beth was checking the muffins.
"What?" Andrea's voice was uneven. Faded.
"Genevive's at the ballet studio. You need to pick her up. She'll be waiting for you and it's cold out."
He could hear the phone dropping again, Andrea grunting and the bedsprings echoing.
"Ok. Ok," Andrea's voice was faint before the phone's dial tone hummed.
The click of the thurible echoed through the church. The smell of incense wafted back to him, stinging his nostrils. The stink was insufferable. Like burnt flesh.
Hanorah Beason had been his mother's next door neighbor. She used to sit with Elizabeth on her porch. Jack's mother's porch was the length of her house, which was clapboard, like all the houses on their street. His mother's house was painted yellow and Jack screened in her porch each June with large, wood framed sections he brought down from her attic. He'd drag the rattan chairs down as well, placing them on the wooden planks of the porch.
Throughout the summer, he would see his mother and Hanorah Beason sitting in the chairs as he walked home from the coffee shop. Jack's mother would be sitting in the chair that faced the street, drinking Red Rose tea. She'd re-use the tea bag until the tea was too weak to drink.
His mother would wave and Hanorah would turn around in her chair. Adjusting her cat's eyeglasses with her thumb and index finger, she would shout, "C'mon, join us, Jack!"
He would shake his head, "I'll be late for dinner. Another time."
Andrea's highball would be on the kitchen counter, a lemon slice resting on top of the ice. When he'd come through the back door, Jack would see her look up from the sink, a bibbed apron with a scooped neck over her dress. "Hello, dear," she'd say.
Jack had thought she was better than he was. The way one of Andrea's hands always rested in her lap when she ate dinner reminded him to do the same. She enrolled their daughter, Genevive, in a ballet class because "Genevive walks like a farmer."
The spicy scent of Jean Naté that Andrea wore after her bath used to thrill him, until he couldn't stand to be in the same room with her when she had it on.
The altar boy rang the bell and Genevive was the first one on the kneeler. Jack left his coat on the pew and joined her. His mother sat between them. Jack placed his elbows on the top of the pew in front of him and cupped his face in his hands. He felt dizzy.
Andrea had taken a plane off of Prince Edward Island the day after the accident. He'd given her money for the ticket.
"I can't stay here, Jack. I have to get away."
Jack had driven her to the Charlottetown airport.
"You should be with me," she'd said.
He'd glanced at her, his hands sweating in his gloves on the steering wheel.
Andrea watched snow falling on the windshield, "I can't go back to that house. I can't live on that street anymore." Her words were clipped. Angry.
Jack winced as they passed the coffee shop. He felt like he would throw up, his face wet with sweat, "Andrea, I can't leave. You know that."
"You son of a bitch. I'm your wife. You're supposed to be my husband."
"I'm her son too and Hanorah was her friend. Her neighbor."
"You should be getting on this plane with me."
"And Genevive? What about her?"
"None of this would have happened if she hadn't been at that ballet class."
"Oh. So all of this is Genevive's fault?" Jack gripped the steering wheel with a force that made his fingers tingle. "She's just a little girl, Andrea. And you are her mother, how can you say such a thing?"
"Don't talk to me."
The car rumbled over snow ruts. The airport's entrance was on Jack's left and he clicked on the turn signal. Saying nothing more, he pulled up to the curb by the entrance and stopped the car. Without looking at Andrea, Jack slipped out his side and opened the trunk. He thought of the front grille, how there wasn't a scratch on it. Jack had stared at it the night before when he parked the car, pulling the garage doors closed.
"Kiss me good-bye," Andrea stood in fur lined boots, clutching the light blue handle of her train case that matched the Samsonite suitcase Jack pulled out of the trunk.
Jack stood by the back of the car and handed the suitcase to a porter who had appeared; red cheeked and grinning with big, square teeth. Jack slipped a dollar bill in his hand.
"Good-bye Andrea," he glanced at her as he pulled the car door open.
Her gray eyes were stones, "Jack."
"I'll see you when you get back," he slipped into the driver's seat and slammed the door. He turned the key in the ignition and his leg cramped. His calf bunched in pain as he pressed on the gas, pulling away from the curb.
Jack lifted his head. Teddy and Scott Beason were ushering the funeral Mass for their mother. Jack followed their dark suit jackets as they walked slowly down the aisle. The Beasons stopped at the altar rail and stood together at the head of the casket. Scott's hair hung over his collar. He slouched. Teddy was rigid, a bald spot the size of a silver dollar on the back of his head. Jack watched the mourners in the first row rise, patting Scott's or Teddy's shoulder as they walked to the altar rail, kneeling on the cushioned pads for Communion.
Jack couldn't look at the brothers without a tingling, painful jolt in his stomach. He took a long breath and rested his eyes on Genevive. His daughter's hair curled and waved under the rim of a turquoise hat. It was trimmed with a black ribbon. The same trim was on her collar. Andrea had bought the coat and hat for Genevive in Boston.
His heart pounded in his chest like a drum. His head in his hands, Jack leaned on the pew and thought if he could name what it was he felt, he would have to call it anguished. Jack could not pass by the casket. He would skip Communion. He bumped his butt on the edge of the pew and slid onto it, pushing his folded overcoat into the space between him and his mother. Jack reached over his coat to touch his mother's arm. She looked at him and he mouthed the word, "Communion?"
She shook her head. Jack's mother wore a black velvet hat with a net that covered half her face. Hanorah Beason had worn a similar hat and she was dead by the time Jack saw her. She might have died instantly when the Bel Air he'd bought for Andrea, struck her. The hat on Hanorah Beason's head was crushed, lopsided, the net torn.
Jack remembered how he flew out of the coffee shop when he got the phone call from Teddy Beason. He left his jacket hanging by the stainless steel oven. His boots crunched on the snow; his hands numb; cold. Jack's street was two blocks from the shop and there was a crowd around Andrea's Bel Air when he saw it and stopped. His legs, stiff as sticks, felt like fear with each step. Jack placed his hand on the coral colored hood of the car. In front of him, Hanorah Beason was lying on her side, one arm resting over her chest. He could see the lopsided hat, but not her face. Jack felt loose, like he was falling through water. Voices were murmuring around him, but he couldn't make out a single word.
Behind the windshield, a flash of movement caught his eye. He turned toward it, and saw Genevive, her mouth open, forming one word, Daddy.
Jack was standing by the driver's side. He stepped back and reached for the door handle, swinging it open. Sliding in behind the wheel, he turned to his daughter. Genevive's small arms enclosed him, hugging him as tightly as the tie he now wore around his neck. Her hair smelled musty, strong. Like yeast. He savored the scent.
Genevive was sobbing. Between breaths, she said, "Mommy ran over Mrs. Beason."
Jack stroked her hair, shut his eyes and tried to think of nothing.
He opened his eyes.
Andrea was on the other side of the driver's side window. Her face, in a scarf tied around her head, was pink with cold. Jack could see a clear drop of snot dangling from her nostril. "JACK!" she sounded like the squawk of a crow and an ambulance whined, drowning her out.
Jack drove his mother's '52 Riviera to the funeral Mass. She handed him the keys when she met him and Genevive at the door to the side porch. They stood in the cold, the screens packed away for the winter.
Sitting beside his mother, Jack felt responsible for her friend's death. The sharp pain pulsed behind his eyes. He could not remember what his passion for Andrea had felt like.
Teddy Beason stood by his pew. Jack looked down at his folded overcoat. He could see Teddy's dark suit jacket when he moved his eye toward the aisle, keeping his head down. Waiting.