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?”