The book surprised her. It lay on the corner of the bathroom sink as though her brother was reading it. Indeed, Nate’s eyeglasses were on top of it.
Patsy flipped the book’s cover and there was the author’s signature. It was the same book.
Down the hall was the room in which their father had died. The book was inscribed to him. A Christmas gift. Eight months ago.
Patsy flushed the toilet and turned on the faucet, rubbing her hands under the water. She hated how often she had to pee. The night she debated about telling Gerry, she must have peed a dozen times.
“What is wrong with you?” he had asked when she pushed her chair back to stand up. They were at a restaurant she knew he could not afford. She’d wanted steak. Twenty three dollars for a dried up piece of meat and a speck of broccoli. Ridiculous.
She almost told Gerry why she had to pee, but something held her back. It was his tone. Possessive. Bossy. She didn’t want to go through with it. It would tie her to him forever. Why was she even sitting with him in a fancy restaurant?
Patsy looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her face had grown, doubled in size. She was a cow. One more month of this exhausting pregnancy. Was it fright she felt or depression?
Patsy dried her hands. Taking the book, she turned off the bathroom light and stepped into the hall. The door to the room their dad had used was closed. The hallway was dark. To her right were the stairs and the light switch didn’t work. She descended the steps slowly, one hand braced on the wall of dark. Gloom surrounded her. The stairwell was suffocating. She missed her dad; the way he used to be, before he got sick.
Back in the kitchen, she could smell the chicken roasting. Patsy put the book on a counter and moved to the door, searching for Gerry and Nate. Her feet were swollen and achy. Her ankles looked like elephant ankles, and she feared she would never get her nice, thin legs back.
She could not see either her husband or her brother. Everything outside was green. Grass and leaves filled out her view through the screen door. Patsy could hear her brother outside, “… he asked me how much I’d had to drink, and I said, not a drop …”
She opened the back door. Dad’s car was missing. It was not parked on the twin strips of cement surrounded by grass where it always rested just beyond the stone patio. It was the car her brother used now that she lived with Gerry.
Patsy let the door snap shut as she walked carefully down a small hill. She stepped slowly, her arms out from her sides so she wouldn’t fall.
She thought again about the book she’d found in the bathroom, remembering the night she’d bought it and met the author. Christmas had been a week away. She held Gerry’s hand as they walked along Thirty-Sixth Street. The sun was setting, but it was still too early for the lights on Thirty-Fourth Street. They were killing time before the strings of lights were lit from one side of the street to the other and each of the dozen or more rowhouses on both sides of the street was transformed into a holiday extravaganza.
She wandered with Gerry into a vintage clothing shop near the intersection of Chestnut and Thirty-Sixth streets. Two blocks from the festive Christmas street. She watched people file past the racks of dresses, coats and jackets to the end of the shop where there was a stairway. Patsy followed them. “C’mon,” she murmured to Gerry.
The second floor was filled with chairs. She found a pair of empty seats. Gerry sat down next to Patsy, who lined her leg — in tights under a short jeans skirt — up against his. Gerry placed his hand on her knee.
A man stood in front of a table with an old typewriter and a stack of books on it. He wore an expensive looking camel haired jacket over a blue oxford cloth shirt. He told the audience he had written the book from which he read. His voice was deep – pure — like an announcer on the radio. The book was about Christmas in Baltimore. The scene he read described the holiday lights on Thirty-Fourth Street. The same lights she and Gerry wanted to see.
The author was clean shaven. He had pretty, light blue eyes. He finished reading and moved to the other side of the table. The applause continued until he sat down. Patsy stood, moving quickly toward the line that formed in front of him.
Gerry grabbed her arm, “C’mon, let’s go.”
“No! I’m buying a book,” she pulled away from him.
“For my dad, he’ll love it!”
“Well, hurry up, then,” Gerry said.
She listened to the author great each person, trying to think of something to say. When it was Patsy’s turn, she leaned over the table, “Hi.”
“Hi, you want a book?”
“Yes,” Patsy said, studying him with a smile. She held his attention for about a half second.
“OK, what’s your name?”
“Here, put it on this piece of paper, so I can copy it correctly,” he said.
“Oh, the book’s for my dad, not me,” Patsy mumbled.
She could hear Gerry behind her, tapping his watch.
The author scribbled, “Merry Christmas, Dad,” and signed his name with big loops and swirls. When he handed her the book, the slip of paper on which he’d asked her to write her name was under his thumb, pressed against the book’s cover.
Patsy looked at it. There was a phone number on it.
The author winked at her.
Outside, on the lawn, Patsy felt wide, bulky.
Nate, who was leaning on Gerry’s old Buick LeSabre, said, “Watch your step.”
“Where’s dad’s car?” Patsy asked him. Her belly sloshed and she could feel the baby move with it; lumpy.
“Hey, hon,” Gerry said. “Dinner ready yet?”
Patsy folded her arms. “I want to know what happened to Dad’s car.”
A Southwest jetliner roared overhead with its orange belly and blue nose. Gerry and Nate lifted their heads to watch it. “What the hell happened?” she shouted over the noise.
“Look. It wasn’t my fault,” Nate raised both hands as though she was going to hit him. “I’ve been trying to get hold of General Motors. Cars like that aren’t supposed to blow up.”
“Wha’ da’ ya’ mean it blew up?” Patsy sank down on the curb. Tired. She was hot and sweaty. Her dad’s car was one more thing she had to miss.
“It caught fire,” Nate said, “I don’t know what happened.”
“Were you drunk?” Patsy could feel perspiration soaking the back of her shirt, under her arms, her breasts.
“No. I. Wasn’t,” Nate enunciated each word.
“Where were you? Where did this happen?”
“By the Tippecanoe?” Patsy’s voice cracked. Anger splintered the words in her throat. Her brother and Gerry met at the Tippecanoe.
Gerry offered to buy them lunch there after her dad’s funeral. Patsy didn’t want to go, but she was outnumbered. When they walked into the cool, dark lounge, the hostess stepped out from her counter and hugged Nate. She whispered to him, her veiny hands below his ears, her face an inch from his. Pasty couldn’t hear what she said and Nate didn’t introduce her. He just turned and she and Gerry followed him to a booth by the bar.
“Hey, Nate! Sorry, buddy,” the bartender leaned over the bar, extending his hand.
“Hey, Mac, this is Patsy, Nate’s sister and,” Gerry gestured to Patsy and she batted off his arm which was circling her stomach.
Patsy was furious. She was a few weeks along and she had only told Gerry four days before, on the night of the expensive steak dinner. The night before her father died.
At the Tippecanoe, they ate crab cakes. Nate and Gerry drank a few beers. When they finished their meal, the waitress refused to give them a bill.
“When’s your trial date?” Gerry asked Nate.
“September twenty-seventh,” Nate said. He did not look at either Patsy or Gerry.
“Jesus Christ,” she said, loudly. Angrily. Patsy pushed herself up, off the curb. She took careful steps up the grassy hill. Disgusted. Unhappy. Her brother — her only relative – was so messed up, he couldn’t take care of himself. She checked on him because she felt obligated.
Yup, she was stuck. And now she would have another burden; the baby. It was a snap decision, made the night of the expensive steak dinner. She figured what the hell, she may as well have it. Gerry said a rare, sweet thing when she returned to the table from the ladies’ room: You can tell me, you know. If something is wrong, I want to help you.
Patsy wasn’t certain who had fathered her child.
She thought of how the author had smelled. Clean. She couldn’t stop herself from dialing the number he gave her. Patsy remembered her fingers were numb, her heart pounded. The person who answered her call spoke in an Irish sounding accent so thick, she did not understand him, “I’m so sorry. I must have the wrong number.”
“Who is this?”
“I’m Patsy. I was trying to reach the author of the Christmas book I bought yesterday.”
“Ah. Patsy. It’s good to hear from you.”
Elated, Patsy had raced up the dark stairs to check on her dad. He was asleep. She left a note for Nate on the refrigerator, so he’d see it. Closing the back door, she didn’t lock it. Nate might not have his house key.
Patsy met the author for a drink in a loud bar in Federal Hill and followed him outside. The sun had set and the air had turned bitter. It stung her face, her fingers. She hadn’t worn gloves.
They walked one block to an alley and stopped at the back door of a rowhouse that was brick, painted white with black shutters. The author opened the door for her and she stepped into a pristine kitchen. When he switched on the light, she could see a sleek, stainless steel refrigerator and dark wood cabinets with glass panes. Dishes were neatly stacked behind the glass. Fancy dishes. The white rims had no chips in them. Holding her hand, the author led her up a stairway that was just off the kitchen. On the next floor, she stood with him in the doorway of a bedroom with a four post bed that took up most of the small room. A colorful patchwork quilt was on the bed. It looked expensive. There was a plain, white cupboard next to the bed with a lamp made from what looked like a large jelly jar. Nothing else.
“Is this your room?”
“Guest room,” he answered, kissing the back of her neck. “For guests, like you.”
She was home an hour and a half later. Nate had not returned and her father was still asleep. Patsy got out red and green striped wrapping paper and covered the author’s Christmas book. She was humming “Silver Bells,” when the phone rang. The caller ID showed Gerry’s number. She didn’t answer it.
Patsy tried to hold onto the shock and thrill of that afternoon, but she heard nothing more from the author. She didn’t feel right calling him, either. If he really cared about her, he’d call her. She was actually glad to see Gerry, who she had invited to Christmas dinner. Patsy served the dinner in her dad’s bedroom. She cranked the hospital bed’s mattress into a sitting position for him. Pasty, Nate and Gerry sat in folding chairs around his bed, eating from trays on their laps.
Patsy and Nate’s dad lingered for another month and died on a gray, snowy day in early February. Patsy never told her dad she was pregnant. She married Gerry the following month, deciding against an abortion.
Gerry followed Patsy up the hill to the house, “Listen, you know your brother has issues. And now that he has no transportation, maybe we should think about …”
“About what? Buying him another car?”
“Well, yeah. What’s so wrong about that?”
“He’ll wreck it, too. And we can’t afford it. We have a baby coming.”
“Sh-h-h-h. Keep it down, will ya? Your brother will hear you.”
Patsy swung the kitchen door open and stomped inside. The baby sloshed from side to side with each step. She pulled the oven door open and the heat slapped her. The chicken sizzled in the butter she had lathered on it. She put on an over mitt and slid the pan out.
The Christmas book was on the counter between them. “What’s this?” Gerry picked it up and flipped the book to look at the author’s picture, “Oh, yeah. I remember him. I saw this guy a couple weeks ago.”
“You did? Where was he?”
“At the Tippecanoe,” Gerry turned and called through the screen door, “Hey, Nate! Dinner’s ready. C’mon!”
“What was he doing there?” Patsy asked.
“Who?” Gerry asked.
“The guy who wrote the book.”
“Oh. I dunno. He was at one end of the bar and Nate and I were at the other. I remembered him because he wore that same camel hair sports coat. It’s the same one he has on in this picture,” Gerry slapped the back of the book, “Yeah, he’s a smooth one, that guy.”
“What do you mean?”
“C’mon, Patsy. You fell for his bullshit, didn’t you?”
Patsy bit her lip. Her head felt frozen.
“I mean, you bought his book, so you must have thought he was something, too. Admit it.”
Dizzy, Patsy leaned against the counter, “Hand me a platter for the chicken.”
“You all right? Why don’t you let me finish fixing dinner?” He put the book down on the counter. “Go on outside, I’ll bring it to you.”
Patsy felt the baby kick with a poke toward her spine. She thought of the author again. His guest room was simple and elegant, and she wondered what his bedroom looked like. Why he wouldn’t show her his own bed.
Her brother stood in the kitchen doorway.
“Nate,” Gerry said. “Help me with this.”
Patsy watched her brother walk past her and grab the platter Gerry held out for him. Her husband lifted the chicken out of the roasting pan, dumping it onto the plate in Nate’s hands.
“Get me the milk for your sister,” Gerry said, when Nate placed the platter of chicken on the counter.
Nate reached into the cupboard for a glass and Gerry took it from him.
Nate turned, looked at Patsy and pulled the refrigerator door open. He handed the milk carton to Gerry who poured a glass for her, “Go on, relax,” he said, handing it to her. “We’ve got this covered.”
She took the glass of milk, and opened the kitchen door. Stepping carefully on the stone patio Patsy kept walking, across the grass. A breeze cooled her arms as she passed the concrete strips for the missing car. She walked to the redwood picnic table she had helped her father put together a million years ago. It was now shaded by the tall, leaf filled branches of a tree her dad and she had planted with Nate. Patsy could smell honeysuckle as she sank down on the picnic bench and lifted her legs to stretch them out in front of her.
Resting her side against the edge of the picnic table, Patsy put the glass of milk to her lips and drank.
Caryn Coyle writes about arts, culture and food for the websites CBS Baltimore and Welcome to Baltimore, Hon. Her fiction has been published in a dozen literary journals including Gargoyle, JMWW, The Little Patuxent Review, Loch Raven Review, Midway Journal, The Journal (Santa Fe) and the anthology City Sages: Baltimore from City Lit Press. She won the 2009 Maryland Writers Association Short Fiction Award, third prize in the first Delmarva Review Short Story Contest, 2011 and honorable mentions for her fiction from the Missouri Writer’s Guild (2011) and the St. Louis Writer’s Guild (2012).