Fiction: Faith Delivers More by Tom McDade
Faith Delivers More
by Tom McDade
I had a great day at the Preakness Stakes. I’d travelled by Greyhound Bus to D.C. then caught another mutt to Baltimore and Pimlico. The trainer of Aloma’s Ruler, Butch Lenzini was from my hometown, Pawtucket, Rhode Island. His family owned Teresa’s Spaghetti Place on Columbus Avenue. Butch was a high school basketball star but followed his father’s footsteps into the world of horses. The Ruler triumphed by half-a-length over Linkage. The payoff was $15.60. I had three $10 tickets. I returned to Washington, checked into the Hotel Harrington on 11th Street NW. After a nap, I visited The Crazy Horse in Georgetown. I’d partied there when I was in the Navy. I drank responsibly this visit as I rarely did when a sailor. I kept to myself, enjoying the memories the music and atmosphere sparked except for a brief exchange with a half-lit woman who wore her hair in a bun that struck me as old-fashioned. She touched her empty glass against my bottle of beer a few times in a toast fashion to friendship, puckering her lips each click. I got the message. I was about to buy her a drink anyway. She yelled out “double” before the bartender got away. She claimed she once sang a duet with Frank Sinatra in Vegas. She finally drifted off to ambush a muscular fellow wearing mirror sunglasses while singing “Strangers in the Night.”
I woke up without a hangover, had a big breakfast at the hotel restaurant. What a huge vat of oatmeal! It was a beautiful morning. I walked the three miles to the National Gallery of Art and sat awhile on its steps waiting for the doors to open. My mission was to find a painting by Whistler, Symphony in White #1. An aunt recently learned that the model was a very distant cousin on my mother’s side. The woman in the painting, Johanna Heffernan was Whistler’s mistress, not a delight for my grandmother who kept the kinship to herself. A guard wearing feathery earrings led me to Johanna. The height of the painting amazed me, had to be 7 feet, nearly 4 feet wide. The title sure did fit, white dress to the floor, background curtain the same. What a contrast with her long red hair; my aunt’s shade. I couldn’t figure out her expression. A hippie haired fellow left his post and approached. “Check out the wolf rug with head attached she’s standing on,” he said. “She’s a warrior. She’s thinking about her next battle.” I agreed. I stared at her for so long I swear she took a step toward me. I heard the rustle of her clothes, smelled the soap she’d used to wash.
I walked back to the hotel to grab my bag I’d left at the desk then took a cab to the bus station on New York Avenue. I’d had enough exercise for one day. I was a half-hour early. In the waiting room, an elderly man wearing an Orioles ball cap was camped across from me. He was telling a group of teens about his bus driving days, 30-years’ worth. He educated them on the roles Greyhound buses played in the Civil Rights Movement and troop transport in WWII. He lectured about the Art Deco architecture. He explained that this terminal was the Greyhound flagship when it opened in 1940. He had every other location memorized and recited them in the style of an auctioneer. The 42 years that had passed between then and now got me thinking about my 37 years on earth and a woman who walked in the door rushed me back 18 years to a day at the Charles Town Races when I was a sailor. A shipmate on the USS Mullinnix named Otis Small invited me to spend a weekend in his hometown. His Uncle Sam time was short, a week to go before discharge. The memory jogger had to be his sister Francy. I remembered remarking that her last name matched her petite frame. It still did. Her brown hair was a lot shorter, wore no makeup. Simple pearl earrings and a small silver horse head pendant on the lapel of her tan jacket likely linen worked just fine. Her jeans looked brand new. Her ankle boots were shiny. She sat down at the end of the lecturer’s bench. Her head immediately snapped his way. I walked over, stood in front of her and sang the last five lines of “More and More I Think About You Less and Less” fairly well I thought. That was one of the tunes her cousin Keenan played on the jukebox at the Heart and Hoof Tavern our big night together. He’d picked a lock in an instant to break us in. I heard a girl in the maven’s audience say, “He’s going to propose!” Francy’s pale blues looked at me like she had a call to the law in mind but a slight smile eased their tension. “Ronnie?” she asked softly. She smelled faintly of a woodsy perfume.
“Yes, yes, how come you didn’t answer my letters? Hanging up after I waited three hours to get through from Barcelona sure did a hurtful number on me.” I realized I was clasping my hands at my chest as if in some nameless prayer. I shoved them into my pockets.
“That was a long time ago Ronnie. It was best that night finished us in a memorable way. Remember, I was just sixteen.”
“May I sit?”
“Sure.” She crossed her legs.
“Yeah, Todd called you ‘jail bait’ more than once; how is he doing?”
“He’s career Navy.”
“Got off the Marine kick?”
“Owen converted him.”
“I wasted stamps on him too. Did he become a stockbroker?”
“No, he works for UPS. Ronnie, you never would have fit. My family was and still is a still and half a feud away from hillbilly.”
“Your cousin Keenan woke me trying to get me to go out for some shine. He provided a sample.”
“Did you jump up and take notice? That was one of my dad’s sayings.”
“Francy, I’d have loved any life that included you.
“Don’t go soap on me.”
“I’m just stating a fact. What are you doing here?”
“I just got back from visiting home. I’m waiting for my ride, you?”
“I was at Pimlico for the Preakness, heading back to RI.” Her watch was a male model, extra dials on its face. She sneaked looks.
“That’s a few levels up from Charles Town.”
“It doesn’t matter; love them anywhere, win or lose. Nice horse pin.”
“A gift from Faith, she mentioned you when she gave it to me.”
“That sure makes me feel good. Maybe I should have written to her.” Francy’s eyes orbited and she suppressed a laugh. “No ring?” I asked.
“One never knows about rings, none on your finger.”
“I’m alone. After four years, she needed space, split for Montana to claim some. What’s your life about?”
“I’m a paralegal, read a lot, go to movies, concerts and plays.”
“What’s that book sticking out of your purse? I asked.”
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”
“Ain’t it the truth? I read one of her short stories, ‘The Jockey’ but I get most of my tales at a restaurant bar where old and young race trackers play hi-lo-jack and reminisce about Narragansett Park’s glory days. I’ve read all of Damon Runyon. Sometimes I close my eyes and I’m at the Heart and Hoof instead of Teresa’s Spaghetti Place. Sherwood Anderson’s story, about pacers ‘I’m a Fool’ describes me best,” I said but my joke at my own expense fell flat.
“Seems so, what do you do for a living, Ronnie?” Her bright yellow blouse was open two buttons. I imagined running a finger from a collarbone bump to a breast tip for some “foolish” reason I supposed. She uncrossed her legs and set one-foot tapping, rubbed the back of her neck. I was happy I had on my new chinos, blue oxford weave shirt and deck shoes from L.L. Bean, happier that I still had the same 31-inch waist as in my Navy days.
“I’m a dispatcher at Road Wiser Transport. How’s the rest of the crew doing?”
Reaching into her purse, she removed a Chapstick and slowly glossed her lips as carefully as if applying lipstick.
“Faith married a guy from the West Coast who bought the Heart and Hoof. Ellis Jr. is a mechanic, drives stock cars. Faith gets sick with worry when he’s competing. She puts flowers on Ellis senior’s grave every Sunday.”
I wondered if junior knew a state trooper shot his daddy dead during a hijacking.
“Keenan picked one lock too many, a locksmith’s shop. He’s in a group home now. He pushes a broom around the Heart and Hoof mornings. Sometimes he stands where Howitzer the bloodhound used to hang out. He howls. A howling Seventh Day Adventist, he is.”
“I remember the dog. He was an alert one, whimpering along as if he knew what was going on. Francy, did you forget how we . . . assisted Faith?”
“Shhh—for God’s sake,” she interrupted. The Greyhound ace loudly cleared his throat. Francy took a deep breath, crossed her arms, turned her head away, and exhaled enough to blow out birthday cake candles. I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.
“I thought that would be a storybook beginning for a couple,” I suggested.
Whispering she said, “Fit for ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales’” and laughed, throwing her head back, eyes lost in the ceiling. Her mouth lingered in a smile as if a kid waiting for a raindrop or snowflake. I studied the lips I’d kissed just once, the teeth that barred my tongue.
“Maybe it was more of a fable or a dream, dear Francy.”
“Ronnie, I’m happy we met again. I’m sorry I treated you the way I did.”
“Maybe we could start from scratch.” I offered.
“Ronnie, I’m gay.”
“Not on my account I hope,” I quipped not knowing how to respond to this news.
“Don’t be a dork.” Could she have let the semi-hillbillies in on this?
“How about we arrange a Platonic deal?” I asked still in search of appropriate words.
“Ronnie, did your ship ever pass another vessel, day or night?”
“I know what you mean but sometimes ships pull into the same port.”
“No, no and no.”
“Okay, okay, and okay, I’ll just cherish moments gone and these,” I stammered wishing she’d take me in her arms and hold me if only for seconds or just for old something’s sake.
“Let’s go outside,” she said calmly as if she’d revealed no more than she used Crest toothpaste.
Nice ass, I thought, recalling a jockey named Amber Tolle quoting a friend of hers named Brautigan before giving a drunken college kid admirer the finger. “There is so much lost / and so much gained / in these words.”
The sun caught Francy’s horse pin. A panhandler asked for change. We both responded. Francy’s donation missed his hand. I helped the poor gent retrieve the quarters. I gave him a buck. Francy glanced up and down the street impatiently. She lifted each leg at the knee to dust off her boots on the back of her calves. I’d never seen a woman do that. My mind had pretty much unscrambled. My eyes were on a beautiful blue Jaguar XKE that stopped to pick up the Greyhound professor when I heard, “Frankie.” A woman walked briskly toward us, wearing a maternity smock and a pleated skirt both rivalling the white of my cousin’s dress. Her hair was very close to the reddest shade of auburn, long and draped over a shoulder. They hugged warmly. “Ronnie, meet my wife Josie.” The coincidences about knocked me over but I was okay with this union. Francy looked confident that I wouldn’t say something stupid. On Josie’s finger was a huge rock that robbed the sun. She was pretty, no, beautiful, a tower, had to be all of 6-1 or 2, no heels.
She took my hand gently. “I’m pleased to meet you.” I didn’t know what sort of smile to wear but I hoped my choice signaled that I thought they made a lovely couple.
“Same here,” I said.
“Wait a minute, Ronnie the sailor! I read your letters. Nice use of Mr. Bartlett’s Quotations, very cool with your sweet closings I must admit, ‘te adoro’.”
Francy’s eyes shut tight and she was blushing with maybe embarrassment mixed with relief this was finally out of the way. The fact that she kept them moved me. Seeing Josie’s big belly, how could I not go Heart and Hoof in the head? Among their parting words, was “te adoro.” Josie clutched her mate’s arm and they walked away in step. “I raised my hand and executed an unseen 180-degree farewell. “Best of luck,” I shouted. Both of their free arms shot up in backward waves.
Back in my room over Teresa’s Spaghetti Place where I was a dishwasher. I put on my Roger Miller LP. “More and More I Think about You Less and Less” crackled. Was “When Two Worlds Collide,” on that long ago jukebox? Good show, Ronnie boy, fine, out-of-the-blue, big lie. I imagined them picturing me at a desk sending moving vans all over the country, I-95 past D.C., and I-81 by the Charles Town exit. Like a dork, I wondered if their baby was a boy, they might name him after me and I laughed aloud. Before filing my Pimlico program in my accordion folder, I removed the one from my 1965 Charles Town visit. Opening it to the ninth race I ran my finger across the number five; Dream Count that Faith had picked that morning at The Heart and Hoof, while chain-smoking, a pitcher of beer on the table where Francy and I would help her deliver Ellis, Jr. that night. I jumped to the ‘L’ where the two envelopes marked “Return to Sender” lived. Maybe I’d finally open them for the hell of it. I distributed some winnings in the Credit Card and Rent slots. I fed Entertainment for the bus trip to NYC, lunch and a play sponsored by Parks & Rec. I placed a few bucks into the ’T’ section for a visit to Fleet’s In-K in Newport. I’d pick up a frame for the postcard of Johanna this week. What color mat would work best? Damn, I should have told them about Johanna. Maybe they’d visit her someday and find the resemblance, much more important than my lineage. I walked to the dresser, removed my shirt and tee to inspect the name tattooed in calligraphy on each section of my collarbone in the mirror: “Francy” and “Faith” that I had done before the phone call from Barcelona. I reckoned it still worked, more or less. I held up the postcard front to the mirror, placed the back of her head just below my collarbone hollow. I figured the Newport artist could do a job as fine as Mr. Whistler did on his masterpiece; add the necessary girth to her waist.
About the author
Thomas M. McDade is a resident of Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT, & RI. He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT. McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Virginia Beach, VA and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE / FF-1091).
His work has recently been published in Once Upon a Crocodile and Bosphorus Review.
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