Robert left us in August. Everyone in our tenement seemed to have someone to say goodbye to so we threw a block party to wish them all well the night before they left. We had so much fun that it was hard to imagine that in the morning they would all be gone and none of us knew when or if we would ever see them again. Robert and I stayed up well after the celebration was over and as we lay in bed he reiterated time and again everything I would need to do while he was gone.
He told me that he had paid all of our bills for the next two months in advance then extracted a promise from me that if I wasn’t able to find work before those months were up that I would go home to my family. I reluctantly agreed to it and all his other suggestions as well. He seemed on the verge of tears at one point and I assured him that Christopher and I would be fine; that he needn’t worry about us and must instead put all his efforts into keeping himself safe.
In the morning we stood on the walkway and said our final goodbyes. We watched until he was no longer in view then Christopher and I went back inside and spent a very melancholy morning together.
For the first week I kept as close to our routines as possible so Robert’s absence wouldn’t be overly felt by Chris. The following Monday I decided I had better face the inevitable and start looking for work. I made arrangements to leave Chris that afternoon with our neighbor Katherine. She had a daughter about Chris’ age and was pregnant with her second child. They shared one of the larger flats above us with her mother and father who both worked at the Prince Macaroni factory.
Her parents earned enough to keep themselves and Kate, along with her daughter and the hoped-for son she was carrying so she didn’t have to find work herself even though Stephen, her husband, was one of the many who had gone off with Robert to join the army. She was a very kind-hearted girl who seldom found fault with anything or anyone. She had many close friends and was someone any of those friends could turn to for just about anything they might need whether it was a cup of sugar or a shoulder to cry on.
“I can’t thank you enough, Kate,” I hugged her goodbye and peered over her shoulder to where Chris and Justine were playing together on the living room floor.
“Any time,” she kissed my cheek, “Mother and Father put in a good word for you at the factory, make sure you try them first.”
“I will,” I assured her as I waved goodbye to them all.
When I got there I was devastated to find that I had waited too long; during the week that I had spent with Christopher adjusting to Robert’s absence they had filled their workforce and didn’t have a place for me. I received a similar response from just about every other business I inquired at. By the time I got home I felt utterly defeated.
“What was I thinking?” I berated myself for my carelessness as I was faced with the very real possibility of having to honor my promise to Robert and move back with my family.
I composed my face before knocking on Kate’s door but quickly lost my happy expression when I heard muffled sobs as I stood in the hallway. Kate swung the door wide. She was holding Justine in one arm and Chris in the other; the weight of both nearly overwhelming her. Chris scrambled from her grasp into mine and as Kate looked up and down the length of the hallway knowing how thin the walls were she hurried us all inside.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re back!” she exclaimed as I soothed Christopher.
“I would have come sooner if I had known you needed me. What happened?”
“I don’t know; they just erupted. They were playing so well together and I turned away for a moment and, well, I guess they got into a little tussle over something. I think Chris got the worst of it. I’m so sorry; I can’t imagine what possessed them.”
I held Christopher back a bit and gave him a thorough inspection. He looked shamefully away when I kissed the tiny scratch on his cheek.
It was hard not to smile as I pictured the two of them fighting and Kate trying to corral them. When I could finally speak with some semblance of authority I made Christopher apologize and shake hands. Once this was accomplished we started to leave but I noticed an acrid smell as I made my way toward the front door with Chris trailing at my heels. I wrinkled my nose and I whirled around.
“Oh, Kate, I think something is burning!”
“Lord above!” she cried as she set Justine on the floor and ran to the kitchen.
I hurried after her and was just in time to see Kate toss a blazing pan into the sink. She ran the faucet over it and batted at the remaining flames with a coarse towel.
“Ugh,” she wafted the air.
I went to the nearest window and tossed it open. Kate looked like she was about to breakdown so I motioned Chris to wait by the door and I gave her a consolatory hug, “It's alright," I said, "come eat with us, it’s the least I can do. I made I pot pie before I went out this afternoon and I’m sure it will be enough for us all.”
“What about Momma and Papa?”
“They can come, too,” and as I said it they both walked into the kitchen together.
“What happened?” Kate’s mom asked.
I seized her mother and father by their elbows and nodded to Kate over my shoulder, “Come, we can tell them over dinner.”
I had left the pie on top of the stove to keep warm while I was out and though it wasn’t hot it was still pleasantly tepid once we cut into it. Kate helped me serve and after she said grace we took our first forkfuls while she told her parents the tale of her ill-fated roast.
Afterwards we tried to discover the cause of the disagreement between Christopher and Justine but neither would confess it. When dinner was over Christopher crawled up onto my lap and sighed heavily. It had been a long day and though he would never have asked outright, I knew he was ready for bed. I excused myself and tucked him in.
By the time I went back to the kitchen the dishes had been cleared away and Kate and her mom were busily washing and drying them. They were in the middle of a conversation and immediately turned to me when I strode back in.
“You never told us how things went today,” Kate reminded me.
“Oh, not so well. I think I may have waited too long to start looking and there doesn’t seem to be any place left that will have me now.”
“So you didn’t find a job today?” Kate regretfully asked.
I shook my head disappointedly.
“Try not to worry, and, hey, if you can’t find anything, you could always sell your pies, they’re absolutely delicious!” Kate said it jokingly but as soon as the words were out I realized that what she said might actually have some merit. I smiled as I quietly considered the possibility. I asked her if she was serious and if she really thought I could support myself and Christopher that way.
“Oh, I know you could,” her mother answered for her. “All you would have to do is put a cart near any one of the docks or factories at the end of any shift and you’d sell them all. No one wants to work 10 hours a day just to go home and work some more to feed their family. With all the men gone, and the women working, no one has time for that.”
“Hmm,” I tucked the hair behind my ears as I mulled it over.
While the evening ticked by we talked some more about the idea and its potential. We came up with a number of plans and ways to implement them. Eventually Justine fell asleep in Kate’s lap and we decided it would be best to call it a night. Once everyone had gone I sat at our little writing table to try and figure out how much it would cost for everything I would need to get started and how much I would need to make in order to support Chris and myself if I went ahead with the endeavor.
“I can do this,” I thought once I was done and had gotten myself into bed. I hugged Robert’s pillow and wistfully fell asleep.
When I woke in the morning my first thought was for my new enterprise. Robert had given me all the cash that was leftover from when he paid our bills and though it wasn’t much I thought it might be enough to buy a cart as well as the other things I would need to get started.
Christopher and I had our breakfast together and when we were done got ready to go out. I had no idea where to get a street cart and after talking to any number of vendors that we passed grew no closer to finding a place to procure one. Most had either built their own or had had them passed down from family or from other vendors looking to get rid of them.
As the morning wore on Christopher grew cranky and tired from all the walking. I wasn’t quite ready to give up my quest so I suggested we go home and get his new wagon. It was a pre-birthday present from Robert that he had given to Chris before he left.As I carried it down the stairs and settled him in it I had a bit of an epiphany.
“Well this would do just as well as a street cart, now wouldn’t it? I could put all my pies in here and tow them to the dock and Chris could come with me and I could tow him home in it after.”
My eyes lit up as I considered the concept. I looked at my watch and anxious to get started wondered how many pies I could make before the dock worker’s shifts would end. I made a mental tally of what I had in the pantry and decided it was as good a time as any to give it a try.
We took a quick trip around the block so that Christopher wouldn’t be disappointed that he hadn’t gotten to use his wagon like we planned and hurried back to our apartment. It wasn’t as easy to make a multitude of pies as it was to make one. I had to stop to give Chris his lunch and I had to distract him a handful of times with activities to keep him busy while I worked. By the time the sun was beginning to set I had only made half a dozen pies.
I brought the wagon down first and made two more trips with the pies. Once everything was arranged I seized Chris’ hand and hastily led us towards the docks. We came to an intersection and I was so determined to get to a good spot where the workers would see me as they left the various piers for the day that I started across without thought. As I reached the midway point I looked up just in time to see a touring sedan bearing down on me and Christopher.
Instinctively I let go of the wagon and swung Chris up into my arms as I dove for the sidewalk. There was a horrible scraping of metal on metal for a number of seconds and when I turned I could see sparks flying from beneath the car as it carried the wagon forward. The sedan screeched to a halt and the driver anxiously dove underneath to see what he had hit as I stood dumbfounded on the sidewalk.
Christopher was bawling at the loss of his wagon and I was feeling not only his grief but my own; for my stupidity and the destruction of the wagon and the pies and for nearly getting us both killed. The driver saw us huddling together on the sidewalk and correctly assumed we were the owners of the decimated cart.
“I’m so sorry,” I called as he approached, “it was completely my fault. I didn’t look, I…”
He looked intensely angry and I started to cry along with Christopher; I didn’t know what to do as he shouted degrading epithets at me. I wanted to run as I held Chris against my chest and covered his ear but could only shrink at the driver's approach. A passenger hopped from the car and commanded him to stop his litany and return. I couldn’t distinguish him in the dim light but the passenger seemed to be someone of standing or importance.
I watched them talk quietly together as they inspected the wagon and the remnants of my pies for a moment and more than once I felt the passenger’s eyes boring into me from where he stood. It was immensely unsettling even though he was so far away and so indistinguishable through the dusky light and my tears. There was something about him, though, and every time he took his eyes from me and turned them on the driver I felt a pang of disappointment and wished that he would look my way again.
Eventually the driver nodded and helped the passenger back into the car. After he closed the door the driver rustled around in the glove compartment and came back to where I stood with Christopher.
“Write your name and address here,” he shoved a paper and pencil at me.
“But why?” I stuttered through my tears.
He looked over his shoulder, “You must.”
I followed his gaze and saw the passenger staring at us from the open window of the backseat.
“Yes,” I mumbled, “yes, of course.”
When I was done the driver took the paper from me and handed me a kerchief before returning to the car. He fished the wagon out from underneath and tossed it onto the sidewalk then a moment later took his place at the wheel and drove away.
I dabbed Chris’ eyes then my own and as I folded the kerchief to tuck in my pocket read the initials. “GB,” I said to myself before collecting what was left of the wagon and pies to drag back home.
© Copyright 2017 SMBowles. All rights reserved.
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