Berniece in Three Acts

Act 1: Disappointment

She ruined his birthday cake. It burned in the oven while she sat out on the fire escape, smoking one cigarette after another, trembling because the Spring was cold and late that year in Chicago.  Berniece hadn’t felt the cold much, hadn’t gotten her sweater from the back of the chair in the bedroom, though her hand, arched over her knee, trembled so that long columns of ash would fall on her stocking feet and brake into flakes like dirty snowballs.

Luckily the fire alarm grabbed her from her revery before the whole place burned up. She didn’t like to think what Robert would have said if he came home to a crowd gathered outside the building and a firetruck parked on the street.  It took her hours to get the scorch marks off the front of the stove, vent the smoke out of the apartment, and tidy the kitchen back up. She called down to the baker and asked him to make a birthday cake, white with chocolate icing. When he asked her how embellished she wanted it, she got nervous and said she wanted it plain, just like a normal cake.

“You don’t want me to put ‘Happy Birthday, Tommy’ on it?”

“Tommy,” she repeated.

“Yeah.”

A silence stretched thinly between them.  Over the phone she could hear the baker breathing and the sound of an oven door whining open and clattering closed. Finally he said, “How about candles? What’s that now, nine? Ten? You got those, Mrs. Allen?”

“I have those. Can you have it done by four o’clock?”

“Four o’clock?”

“I know it’s short notice…” Then she came clean all in a rush, and they were both surprised that she was crying as she said she ruined her son’s cake. It wasn’t something for a person to cry about. The baker said that.

“Don’t cry over a birthday cake, Mrs. Allen.” He said, “I’ll rearrange a couple of things and get your cake done by three. If you want to bring me down your own plate, I’ll put it on that before I put in the icing.”

She was laughing through her tears now. “Oh, thank you. Yes, I’ll be down.”

It was too much to try to pull herself together. It was almost one and Tommy would be home just after three and Robert by six.  She threw on a long coat and shoved her feet into a pair of taupe kitten heels that she wore too often because they made her feel instantly pulled together. As her toes sank into the mouth of the shoes, she saw the ash stains being covered over, herself cheaply transformed into a normal wife and mother.

Lipstick. A scarf and – at the last minute – earrings. She rubbed lotion into her hands and found clean gloves.  Berniece didn’t give the apartment a last glance as she stepped out with her purse in one hand and the plate in a brown paper bag under the other arm.  She never glanced back when she left.

 


 

Act 2: The Visitation

It felt like a dream the moment she opened her eyes. She was standing in the hallway of an office building.  At one end of the hallway there were two windows, ganged together, with oak blinds pulled but tilted open. A fiery sunset with a round clementine sun was painted over the shadowy buildings. She was alone in the hallways except for a pair of wilted trees in pots that guarded the elevators.

It was an older building, completely foreign to her, though the type was ubiquitous. Oak trims and doors with textured glass in the top panel.  Plain block lettering in black on the glass. Later she would only recall one of the names.  Knee high columns of metal and faux wood with sand in the tops for putting out cigarettes. Miles of speckled taupe linoleum tile that made her kitten heels seem to disappear when she glanced at her feet.

How had she come to be here?

She crossed to the elevator and tapped the down button, but the light didn’t come on and there was no sound as she waited of a line igniting, the lift rising or dropping from other floors.  She tapped it three times more.

“You’re on the right floor.”

She turned to see a man silhouetted against an office doorway. He was tall and broad, made to look like a tank in his boxy suit.  A highlight along his face revealed blond whiskers and surprisingly small ears.

“No, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not sure how I got here.”

“I need to speak to you, Mrs. Allen.”

“How do you know-”

“We haven’t time for that now. Come into my office.”

He turned away and she followed him, despite herself, like a moth compelled by a porch light. Although she anticipated no ecstasy. In fact, she moment she passed over the threshold into his office, she wasn’t surprised to see the lighting change, the colors growing dimmer. Why was she not surprised?

It was like they both knew something, yet she’d forgotten.

“You’re missing,” he said without preamble. “And I need your help to find you.” Leaning against his desk with one ankle crossed over the other and his arms folded together at the waist, he was closed off except for his clear brown eyes, studying her intently.

She recognized him then.

“You’re that detective that Robert hired last year when Sheldon asked him to go into business with him and Robert was worried. You found all those lawsuits, the shell corporation. Robert was so pleased with your work.”

Suddenly she felt like a normal wife again, like when she put on red lipstick or washed the smoke off her hands. This was what wives did, making men who did business with their husbands feel valuable. Her mother had always been good at just that; she could make a dinner party far better than their small kitchen should have allowed. And she kept the wine flowing and later the cigars and brandy.  The men all insisted she stay when she demurred and insisted on leaving them to their own vices. Berniece’s family never had parties with wives – or it didn’t seem like that in her memories – only men, lining the tables, wearing fat ties, crimp marks in their hair where their hat brims had rested too many hours of the day, beating the streets to sell things to women who stood in doorways, trying to loosen their apron strings, glancing back over their shoulders now and again in to deep and shadowed front halls.

“We ain’t got money for nothing.”

Berniece could never make a dinner party come off.  Robert preferred to meet his colleagues at restaurants.  He said neutral territory was better. It was more modern. She was pretty sure it was on account of her peculiarities. That’s the word Robert liked to use, his eyes slipping away from her gaze, a kindness that smarted like a paper cut.

The man leaning on his desk shook his head.

“He said you drifted away like this all the time.”

“He said? Who said?”

Now she was back in the office with the detective.

“Oh,” she said.

The detective crossed toward her and beckoned her to take a seat.

“We need to talk about Friday.”

“Today is Friday.”

“No, ma’am. Today is Monday. And no one’s seen you for three days.”

She squinted into the colorless corners of his office.

“That can’t be true. I’m right here. I just left the apartment to go to the-” She broke off, glancing down at her hands. Only the purse, still clutched in her right glove.

“Oh, good. I must have dropped off the plate.”

“Yes, you did. The baker confirmed it. That was at a quarter passed one on Friday. Then someone remembered seeing you crossing through the park. The one near your apartment house.”

She remembered that as soon as he said it.

“Yes, that’s right. I went to the park. I cut across it diagonally so I could walk past the fountain. The old one, not the new one. I like the old one better.”

“Did you meet anyone there.”

“Of course not.”

She opened her purse to find her cigarettes, but her hand fished around only in emptiness, the glove whispering against the stained red satin lining.

“Oh, my. I must have been robbed.” She held the purse out to him.

“Anyone suspicious follow you?”

She stood, leaving the purse on the chair like a mouth hanging open, and she began to pace the floor.  “There was a man. We passed one another just as I stepped into the park. He glanced at me and he held my gaze for just a moment too long. You understand? It made me feel uncomfortable. Undressed. I walked a little faster then. And I wanted to look back to make sure he was still heading away.”

Berniece paused and looked into the detective’s eyes.

“But then I was scared that if I turned back, we’d make eye contact again and he’d be encouraged. So I cut through a little path that wends its way through boxwoods and hollies.”

“Did he follow you?”

She frowned. “I don’t remember.”

“What did he look like?”

“He was thin. He wore a grey suit, a little shiny at the elbows, like a man who’s down on his luck.  A square sort of face. Pale grey eyes or maybe that was just the light glinting off his spectacles. I’m not sure about that.”

“Did he smile? Did he seem friendly or threatening?”

She shivered, recalling. “He seemed hungry.”

He crossed to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. He became her father then in a sense, with a troubled and kind expression, holding her before him to ask more questions.  Only when her father did it, she could smell his floral pomade, his cigars, and his aftershave, something like spices and woodsmoke. It had always been too much to take in, especially when meeting his eye was already so tumultuous.

The detective said, “This is important, Mrs. Allen. Did you see him again?”

She nodded, wanting to shrug his hands away. Instead she stepped back and he lifted his arms before his fingers would have slipped down over her breasts.  Taking up her purse and resuming her seat, she stared into the corners of the room again.

“I did see him again. But it wasn’t in the park. It was in a room. He was standing above me with a window at his back. And his shirt was stained then. And his hands, too.”

She frowned, her lips feeling a little thick as she spoke the words, “Blood, I think.” Funny that it didn’t frighten her in the least.

He drew a sharp breath.  “And do you know where this room was?”

“I didn’t recognize it. It was seedy. Old. Victorian. With faded wallpaper. Little flowers, all in blue.”

She laughed nervously then.  “I should be the detective.”

“Ma’am?”

“Outside the window over his shoulder there was a water tower in the distance. It said Trubin City. That’s about twenty minutes north of here.  A horrible little town. Robert and I got stuck there once, years ago, waiting for a mechanic to patch our tire.”

“I know of it.”

“Well, I can tell you one thing. There aren’t many Victorian houses in Trubin City. Mostly little places with pointed roofs like they were building back in the twenties. And newer ones, tiny brick boxes with flat roofs. And lots of long, low-slung cinder block shops with plate glass fronts. Dime stores with things that make everything seem just a little meaner. Like plastic flowers you put on graves.”

She dug around in her purse again, wanting to smoke and forgetting.

“I was going to study architecture. I used to want…”

Shrugging, she glanced at the detective.

He was thrusting his arms into his trench coat.

“There isn’t much time,” he said. “I’m off to Trubin City.”

She should have stood and followed him to the elevators. Instead she sat there and stared at the things on his desk. Bills and memoranda all with cluttered black ink that said nothing she recognized.  An ashtray overflowing and a coffee mug that probably hadn’t been washed since Eisenhower was president.  Behind her she heard the bell for the elevator and the whoosh of the doors opening.  Then it closed again and she could hear the motor as the car dropped away and away.

 


 

Act 3: Revelation

When she opened her eyes again, Berniece knew at once that it was not a dream. It felt nothing like it. There was nothing surreal about the hospital room: the muddy green blue paint on the bottom half of the walls, the crimped metal blinds at the square windows, the band around her wrist with words she understood plainly.

The detective was there, but this was not like before.

In noon sunlight as pale as a white onion, he sat in the visitor chair, his head slumped forward, his whispers shimmering like gold dust.  He started awake, rubbed his eyes, looked into her face as if he were meeting her eye for the first time.

“You’re awake,” he said. “I should call the nurse.”

“No, don’t,” she said.  She wanted to ask him if he remembered their last meeting. Instead she waited to hear what he had to say.

“How are you feeling?” A familiar question, she’d heard a lot in her life, always with a note of hesitation, the asker braced for disappointment.

“My throat is sore. And my stomach.”

“They had to pump it to get the pills out.”

She frowned. “I was sure I’d been stabbed.”

He leaned forward too quickly, his eyes narrowed, his chin pushing forward.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“There was so much blood. You remember.”

He frowned. “How much do you remember?”

“Just what I told you before.”

“Ma’am, we haven’t spoken before.”

It seemed pointless to argue. Even she had felt it was a dream, all the while.

“So he poisoned me?”

He leaned back and folded his hands on his lap carefully.

“The way he tells it, after you stabbed him, you took the pills yourself.”

“I stabbed him? But that’s nonsense.”

“He says you went berserk and stabbed him over and over with a steak knife that got brought up with the dinner tray. He’s got the wounds and we’ve got the knife. That much checks out.”

After a silence, he added, “He said you tapped him on the shoulder in the park, asked him if he wanted to go for a ride. To get out of the city. He said he thought you were some sort of crazy rich lady out looking for a lark.”

She thought about the loose springs in the sofa. “My husband wishes we were rich, but we’re always missing the boat.”

“He said you wound up in Trubin City at that bed and breakfast Friday night. You spent the next two days racking up a bill for wine and steaks.  You sent him out to buy liquor Saturday night before the store closed and the two of you spent most of the weekend in bed together.”

She brought her hands out from under the sheet, wanting to hold them together because she felt cold. Her nail polish was chipped and there were scratches on the backs of her hands.  Her wedding ring was still there, and the engagement ring with its little shaving of diamond.

“I don’t understand. I’m a mother. I’m not a monster.”

He leveled his eyes on her face and he didn’t seem to have anything to say just yet.

“I pass this man in the park and then I wake up here and you tell me I tried to kill him.”

“And then yourself.”

She felt the muscles around her mouth twist as she thought of protesting.  Then her features went flat again. It felt true, the things he was telling her, although she still couldn’t remember.  A cloud must have passed over the sun because the room grew darker.

“I don’t know what to say. I have to believe it’s true, although I can’t imagine why I’d do it. I never do anything to make a fuss. I never fight. I never kick or scream. I’m as meek as a mouse. I always try to be good. I never get things right. I never have.”

“Mrs. Allen?”

“The cake,” she said, scratching blood out of her cuticles with her thumb. “I wanted to make it myself.”

Then, thrusting her hands back under the sheets again, she asked, “Is it still Monday?”

“Tuesday.”

“That’s Tommy’s real birthday. But we always have birthdays on Saturdays. It’s so much easier, isn’t it?”

 

 

Sunny Made Tea

For show and tell, Sunny demonstrated how to make tea the Japanese way.  With long blond hair and a tomboy’s beauty and poise, she stood at the teacher’s desk, heating the water, an electric cord trailing to the single steel-plated plug under the blackboard. There were a few workarounds to bring the tea to an American classroom and I doubt that now a twelve year old would be allowed to heat water over a glowing red burner in front of their schoolmates.

I remember only a few technical things about the demonstration. Sunny measured loose leaves into what I believe was a chamber that stacked overtop of the pot, perhaps with small holes that allowed the water to steep with the leaves before descending to the lower vessel.   That part is vague. What stood out is that she said the proper way to prepare tea was to use the water when it was not quite boiling.  The temperature was important to open up the leaves.

The teacher nodded knowingly.

It’s funny to me that I can remember this so clearly, the tea demonstration, the light on Sunny’s hair, the brief introduction that let us know Sunny’s father had served overseas and that they had only recently returned to America.  She had a posture that was almost athletic, a confident way of holding her head, a smile that was broad and free. Her jeans were light blue with curves of stitching on the pockets.

The room filled up with the scent of tea, exotic to me because the only hot drink I ever smelled at home was the Eight O’Clock coffee that cooked itself thick every morning in the percolator. The same batch that Dad made at four-thirty before leaving for work, mom would finish off at seven after she’d dragged us out of bed.  No wonder she was seduced by cans of International Coffees only a few short years later.

I want to imagine that it was spring when Sunny made tea, that a tree was in bloom outside the metal-cased windows, covered in pink blooms that imitated cherry blossoms. But this is my adult mind embroidering the story with a designer’s inclination for well-defined motifs.

It was autumn, though, and in a few months the shuttle Challenger would explode on a television set in our science class.  We would go home that day on a bus quietly full of hushed whispers shielded behind dirty mittens.  But on the day that Sunny made tea, we were ahead of a tragedy; no snow had yet fallen and the leaves were only just turning.  The school year was new and so were Sunny and I to this school.

I think of Sunny and her tea demonstration at least a handful of times a year and I cannot imagine why. It has been thirty years since that pot of tea cooled and the leaves made their way into the waste basket.  I’ve only just tried to imagine the details I wouldn’t have seen, like Sunny and her mom washing up the teapot together at a kitchen sink that evening. Her father might have sat at the table nearby, his military shoulders set square and mighty as he glanced up over the paper to ask how the demonstration went.

I can imagine that most of us watching her from our desks could have been sketched as round cartoon faces with slack oval mouths, diagonal lines to show our brows raised in wonderment.  I think I remember that some of the girls came up to Sunny afterward, more than convinced that she ought to be ushered into their group.

Later Jamie White stood beside her at recess, talking to her comfortably as they each dug their hands into their back pockets, bookends clearly well suited to one another. Jamie could hold onto the flagpole with both hands and hold his body straight out like he was being blown away in a gale force wind.  The pair of terrycloth athletic wrist bands he always wore didn’t help him with this trick, but they made him seem a little more badass. The only time I ever saw him look less than completely confident is when Sunny smiled at him and his face went red behind the little corn chip moles on his cheeks.  He dropped his eyes to the cracked concrete, grinning so wide it looked like it hurt.

 

Little Blue Flower

I knew a man once who was cruel, but his story was also cruel.  The memory of how his life unfolded still haunts me.

It began when he saved the life of a wizard.  Remarkable in and of itself.  As it happened, the wizard was merely crossing a street and this man was doing the same.  He noticed the oncoming car first and whisked them both out of harms way.  It was a simple act, more instinct than kindness, but the wizard was grateful and he granted the this man a unique wish.  He could give him any one power, to be used over and over until his death. It would be a unique gift and one he must decide for himself.

As it happened this man was broken-hearted at the time of his heroic act.  His girlfriend of many years has left him only weeks before.  He was haunted by his love for her, particularly by a memory that came each time he glanced at a photo on the fridge door.  She stood on the beach, backlit, her hair a silver outline against the grey of sky and ocean.  It had been a sunny day, but the picture was not a good one.  Still, it brought back his happiest memory, and that was something that broke him every time.  He had torn up the photo, but later taped it back together. He couldn’t let it go, but the pain just didn’t seem to let up.

So when the wizard asked him what his power would be, the man said he wanted to be able to take away a person’s happiest memory.  He would use it on himself and once he did the photo would be all but meaningless.  It would find its way into the waste basket.

At first the wizard pulled his beard and seemed to hesitate, perhaps mulling over the cosmic ramifications of rendering such a trick.  But then his cell phone rang and, reaching into his flowing robes, he took a call.  It was his mother and he seemed peeved to get it.

“This really isn’t a good time,” he said.

The wizard shook his head at the man, his expression seeming to say, “Moms. Am I right?”  At last, he held out a hand and placed it on the man’s forehead.  His lips moved in a silent incantation.

“There,” he said aloud.

Then into the phone, “Not you, Ma. Some guy.”

The wizard walked away, but turned back, flattening the phone against his chest.  “It is done,” he said. “You need only say, ‘Happiest memory you are gone.’ Use it wisely.”

When the man got back to his apartment, he took one long look at the photo.  It had been in Malibu and the memory was a short one, though it represented a broader swath of his life.  When he and Diana were first falling in love.  He had looked into the sun too long, so that when his eyes tilted on her, there were spots of blackness floating around her face, and a dimness that shrouded her eyes in secrecy.  But her smile came through his small blindness, a flash of gorgeous lips and bright teeth.  He then felt her hand slip into his and heard her voice, husky and sweet and golden, “Ready to head back?”  That moment encapsulated everything good about one fantastic year.  His hand rose involuntarily and rested on the corners of the photo, flattening out the curling paper.

Taking a deep breath, the man closed his eyes.

“Happiest memory, you are gone.”

He let his mind go blank, breathing the way he did when he did yoga, sure that the magic worked best when you gave it a little space.  Then he opened his eyes and looked at the picture.  But the memory was still there, sharp as ever, bitter and sweet and agonizing.

“Damn.”

He tried it once more. Then again.

When he was drunk later that night he tried it so many times that he fell asleep on the kitchen floor in front of the refrigerator.  Each time he said, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

In the morning he could still remember everything about that moment.  The cry of the seagulls.  The smell of her shampoo and sunblock. He decided that there really was no such thing as wizards.  The wizard had just been some dude stumbling toward Comic Con or a meeting of D & D players.  Or a lunatic with a strong grasp of wardrobe.

He laughed at himself until his head hurt.

There was no such thing as magic and he had no super powers.

 


 

Then in the Spring a small blue flower budded in the mulch at the corner of his yard. He spotted it one morning on the way to the coffee shop and he paused, a smile opening on his mouth, and he had a strong sense that whenever this blue flower bloomed, he felt happy.  Because.

Then he realized that the only thing he knew for sure about the blue flower was that for a long time it had been a thing that meant something.  Now he couldn’t remember what it was.  He asked his sister if it meant anything to her.

“Mom planted those for us. Some in each of our yards. Cassie has some, too. Mine never made it. The year she was dying. You remember.”

And when she said it, he realized that part he could recall.  And helping her plant the flowers wasn’t a happy memory really.  He’d been irritated with her about it.  Thinking it was sentimental.  He might not always live here. One day he might not even want a yard. She’d blown off his grousing the way she always did.

“Let me do this,” she said.

It wasn’t the planting day that he couldn’t remember.  It was something else.  Of course, he was a kind of forgetful man.  He often walked into a room and paused because his reason for coming was already out of his mind.  Still, that blue flower hit him when he looked at it.  It was sharp, but vacant.  There had been a memory there and a meaning. It just wasn’t there anymore.

He began to wonder if he did have the super power.  Had this forgotten thing been a happier memory than the day on the beach with Diana?  He’d been sure that was his most joyous recollection, but he had been in the throes of his grief then and perhaps he’d not been seeing things clearly.

 


 

Then in the autumn he was cleaning out the grate when another missing memory made itself known to him.  It was a damp day outside and on those days the chimney really smelled of wood smoke the most.  As he leaned in to clean out the ashes, the smell caught him off guard.  And he felt a smile forming on his lips – just like with the little blue flower – and then it was just a feeling like being empty.  But if emptiness could itch.  Because he knew that this smell of woodsmoke always made him think of something else that was sensory, like another fragrance or a taste, which was in turn connected to a person and a moment.

He was stunned by the loss.

Leaning back from the grate, he stared into the shadows of the room, but there was nothing there to answer the question.  How many times had he used his power on himself that first night? How many happy memories had he erased?

Or was this more of his usual scattered mind?

 


 

He stayed late at his neighborhood bar, until only he and the bartender were left.  Two feet of mahogany, waxed over the years to a mirror finish, separated them.  Charlie had told him some good jokes; he knew a lot of them already.  They had been talking for years.

If the wizard had been a wizard – and if he had a super power – tonight would have to show it.  He couldn’t live anymore with the uncertainty.  It had been terrorizing him, not knowing if he had magic or was simply on the precipice of Alzheimers.  That’s what took his Mom. It ran in the family.

He looked into Charlie’s eyes a little too long.  Men have codes about things like this.  But he had to study him and see just how his eyes looked in the beginning.  Charlie frowned at him.

“You okay?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded distant to himself.

He took a deep breath and then said to Charlie, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

Charlie blinked.  “I’m glad I already called last call.”

“Tell me about the day with your Granddad on the ferry ride.”

Charlie frowned. “What the fucks got into you, man?”

“Tell me about it.  The hotdogs and the fat lady whose dress blew up.  The thing your granddad said.”

Charlie shook his head, “He just…”

“Yeah?”

Charlie straightened up, braced his hands on the bar.  He turned his head to glance down the bar, his eyes probing the dimness of the room, looking for an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think that’s me.”

“Of course it is,” the man said.  His heart was racing, his hands trembling. “I just asked you too quick.”

“No,” Charlie said.  But his brow was creased as he dropped his gaze to his feet. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t have no memory like that.”

When he glanced up at the man, his eyes glistened with tears.  The man looked into his eyes, trying to find a missing light.  Charlie turned away, taking the towel off his shoulder to wipe glasses.

“What was that thing you said a minute ago?  The thing about the happy memory?”

“I don’t know.”

Charlie put a hand up on the shelf in front of him and leaned into his arm, resting his face against his sleeve.  “I think you’d better get out of here.”

But the man had already slipped off his stool, his face white and his fingers numb and awkward as he shook a twenty out of his wallet.

“Night, Charlie.”

The bartender wouldn’t turn to face him.  He didn’t say good night.

 


 

After that the man was sure his power was real.  It awakened something in his personality. There had been a thrill that came when he took away Charlie’s happiest memory.  It was undeniable.  When he tried to think about the morality of it, his thoughts broke apart like a puzzle fresh out of the box.   He couldn’t piece together a way to look at the mess of his new magic.  He just knew it to be exhilarating.