“I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do,” David said, running a hand through his hair. “I’m completely lost, sis.” His voice cracked with emotion, and his eyes shot across the room, jumpy with exhaustion. As he glanced back at Florence, she noticed just how worn and beaten David looked from the last few days. He took off his wire-rimmed glasses and rubbed his wide, green eyes.
Florence took a discreet look around the crowded diner. Satisfied that all of her regulars were suitably taken care of, she sat down at a stool next to David. Folding her hands in front of her, she looked over at her baby brother. “It’s been a long time since you’ve called me that,” Florence said, pouring herself a cup of coffee. A small smile crossed her plump cheeks.
Everything about David’s appearance had hastily been thrown together in the stuffy haze of the morning. His charcoal grey suit looked slightly ruffled, and his black necktie was crooked. As he took off his cap, his normally neat, chocolate brown hair was wild from inattention. He glanced up at the ceiling and brushed a wild strand of hair from his eyes.
“It may not seem like it,” Florence said, topping off her little brother’s coffee. Her voice was gentle, trying to be supportive as she continued. “You will get through this.”
David always looked like a school boy to her. Barely twenty-five, he still had a very round, soft face. His gentle, boyish features were still very visible, even under the three day beard covering his cheeks.
“When was the last time you shaved?” Florence asked, taking a sip of her coffee. She gently smacked him with the side of her hand, trying to make him smile. “You look like a hobo.”
“I don’t remember,” David replied, looking down at the cup in front of him.
The Brass Kettle Diner was busy with the lunch rush from Wall Street. The tables were filled with the usual Stock Market crowd. Many of the men had their shirtsleeves rolled up, trying to combat the oppressive humidity which swallowed Manhattan during the dog days of summer. The diners kept mostly to themselves, many paging through folded copies of the Times or the Journal, stopping occasionally to fan themselves with their hats.
Despite the lingering and uncomfortable heat, the room felt like quiet sanctuary away from Manhattan. About fifty tables were packed into the dining room. Fresh flowers decorated every table, successfully creating a welcoming environment.
Florence exhaled sharply, resting a supportive hand on his bony shoulder. She took a moment to consider her words. “What you need to do, is stay strong for that baby.”
Their relationship had always been tenuous, and Florence could feel herself still walking on egg shells with David. She tucked a stray strand of graying hair behind her ear as she took another scan of the restaurant before refocusing her attention on him. “I understand what you’re going through, David. Honestly, I do. I remember everything Dad went through after Mom died.”
David was only half listening to her. His eyes were a million miles away, fixating on the thoughts looping in his head. He dropped another sugar cube into his coffee and mindlessly stirred it until it dissolved in the dark brown liquid.
In truth, Florence barely remembered anything from after their mother died. They were 16 years apart. After Bridget Freeman died in labor with her brother, Florence moved out with her then fiancee, leaving David to fend for himself against their father’s drunken tirades. She was probably sympathetic, but she remembered little.
“Yes!” David snapped. “I killed Mom. I know. Dad made that abundantly clear for years.”
Florence took a sip of coffee. She smiled to herself, privy to a pleasant memory he was too young to remember. Ignoring his outburst, she rested her hand on top of his, looking David squarely in the eye. “Believe it or not,” Florence began. She spoke slowly, thinking through what she wanted to say carefully. “You’re a lot like Mom. I think that’s why Dad had such a hard time after she died.”
It had been two days since his wife had died, and three since he had any real sleep. David took a long sip from the cup in front of him. Coffee, and the fear of what he might see upon closing his eyes, were the only things keeping him awake.
“Are you listening to me, David?” Florence asked, topping off his coffee. Her voice was direct as she looked up and took another survey of the room. “Thomas needs to be your first priority, now.”
“I can’t provide for that baby,” David replied. He pulled off his glasses and dropped his head into his hands. His eyes were glued to a spot on the wall as he continued. “I don’t know the first thing about being a father.”
“David, when was the last time you slept?”
“I haven’t been able to close my eyes,” he replied. His voice sounded flat and tired in his head, and his body had long passed the point of exhaustion. His muscles were only functioning through the sheer need to keep moving forward.
“I tried to lay on the sofa last night, but I kept hearing her screaming… all that blood.” His breathing was deep and shaky as he struggled to keep a hold on his crumbling composure. He lit another cigarette.
“You need sleep,” Florence said. She gave his fingers a slight squeeze. Leaning over, she dropped her head slightly, trying to meet his eyes. “I’m sure things will seem clearer with a nights sleep behind you.”
David shifted his eyes toward the ceiling beams above their heads. He stretched the knots out of his aching back, hearing his joints pop. Pulling his hands back in front of him, he took another long sip of coffee. His voice cracked as he continued, “I had to make the arraignments for this damned funeral.”
He had spent the last two days going through the motions, pretending he knew what needed to be done. In truth, he had no idea. Despite everything, they had never spoken of this as an eventuality. Jessica was twenty-three, she wasn’t supposed to die for another forty or fifty years. He had always figured he would go first.
David dropped a nickel on the counter, and pushed himself up from the bar stool. He could feel his breath catching in his throat. He needed fresh air and to be alone. “I’d better get back,” he said, pulling his cap down onto his head.
“Please, take a few minutes and eat something,” Florence pleaded with him, emotion welling in her voice. “You can allow yourself that much.”
David looked towards the door, deliberately avoiding eye contact with his older sister. “Jess’ god awful sister is watching Thomas… I really should go…”. He spoke quickly. The sound of his heart pounding in his own head was almost deafening.
“Please let me know how I can help,” Florence said.
David didn’t answer as moved towards the door in the corner of the dining room.
Florence stood up and took a few steps to catch him. She reached out for his arm, stopping him in his path. Her voice was sincere as she continued. “I’m here for you, David. What can I do?” She looked him up and down as he slowly turned to meet her eyes.
Ignoring her, David sucked in a centering breath as he turned his back and moved through the door, stepping onto the cobblestones of Thames Street.
Just a half city block, Thames Street was far too dark and narrow to truly be called a street. The diner was one of three or four storefronts jammed into what was, in truth, little more than an alley separating the back facings of two towering buildings.
Leaning against the tan brick, David looked up at the sky, which was just a blue sliver, barely visible between the two roofs far above his head.
Standing in the claustrophobic alley, David could feel the heat quickly becoming trapped in the layer of smog hanging over the city. He squeezed his eyes closed as he started down the street. The chugging of traffic and the trumpeting of horns on nearby Broadway grew louder with each step.
David exhaled sharply. Between the aches and pains burrowing into his muscles, and the onset of sheer exhaustion, it took almost more effort than he could muster simply put one foot in front of the other.
David tugged at his bowtie, which felt like a noose around his neck. Sweat pooled just underneath his shirt, and he needed to get air flowing underneath the heavy fabric.
He pulled his hat down further over his head as he stepped out into the bright summer sunshine on Broadway. The pavement was roasting as David moved toward the street car stop he knew was up ahead about a block ahead.
He buried his hands in his pockets as he waited for the streetcar. His fingers brushed the pack of cigarettes which were weighing down his pants.
His head throbbed with a deep tension headache. Shielding his eyes from the harsh sunlight, he spotted the streetcar two streets up.
He pulled out the pack of cigarettes, lighting himself another.
Taking a drag, David felt his breath slowing. The adrenaline in his system slowly fell away, his body gradually coming back under his control.
The streets bustled with activity as men in polished, well-tailored suits hurried between office buildings, talking quietly amongst themselves as they moved about their day.
He dropped his spent cigarette into the gutter as the streetcar rumbled to a stop in front of him. David stepped aside, letting riders exit through the tight doors.
David shuffled his way to his usual seat near the back. Sitting on the hard wooden bench, his mind flashed back to the countless times he had sat with Jessica in the same spot.They would squeeze close together, their hands intertwined, usually talking quietly. Sometimes they would just sit quietly, perfectly comfortable just being with each other.
He wrapped his arms around his body, and leaned against the wall. Closing his eyes, David let himself get lost in the gentle rocking as the carriage continued down the street.
“I have to go in there,” David stammered. His words came fast, fueled by the adrenaline pulsing through his system. He stepped off the path he had been pacing for twenty minutes, and turned to face William Conlon, who slowly paged through a copy of the New York Times. David stopped, forcing himself to speak carefully and keep his tongue from tripping over his words. “What if Jessica needs me?”
His brother-in-law stood up and walked over to where David stood, leaning against the chipping kitchen counter. William placed a friendly hand on the younger man’s shoulder as he poured himself a small drink. “I’m sure Doctor Stern and the girls have everything under control. You can’t help her any more than they are already.”
A bookish man of 45, Jessica’s eldest brother had started to show signs of his advancing age. A bookkeeper for the family dry goods store, his lined eyes were hidden behind a pair of glasses. His dark brown hair had started thinning on top, and was turning gray around the temples. William took a deep puff on his cigar as he turned to take another look at the bedroom door.
“I need a drink,” David said, moving towards the liquor cabinet. “Fuck!” He whispered, staring down at the blood seeping from underneath the fingernail he had been picking at all day. He sucked at the blood collecting under his thumb before reaching over his head for a glass.
In the corner of the room, Thomas was propped in his crib. The toddler coo’ed quietly over a set of alphabet blocks Jessica had bought a few months earlier. She had called the toy an early birthday present. The blocks were a success, the two year old appeared completely oblivious to the building tension in the room.
David reached back into the cabinet and grabbed the last bottle of brandy, which had been pushed towards the back of the shelf. “It wasn’t this bad with Thomas,” he said, filling his glass with the rest of the caramel colored liquid. He glanced out their dusty living room window, which overlooked the intersection of 42nd and Second Avenue. David closed his eyes, throwing the contents of the glass down his throat. It only took a moment for the familiar warmth spread through his body.
He thought back to the night two years ago. Jessica had a very difficult delivery with Thomas. He took a centering breath as he was finally allowed back into the bedroom. Pushing the door open, the only light came from a candle in the corner of the room, where Anna and Katherine Conlon were working over the crying baby.
Jessica could barely open her eyes as David sat on the edge of the bed.
“Baby,” David said. He ran a gentle hand through her hair, which was drenched with sweat. Being able to feel her under his fingers, finally convinced him that she was all right, letting the tension of the last four hours drift away. He traced his fingers gently down her soft cheek. Her pale skin felt clammy to his touch. “How are you?”
He looked over her, letting his hand slide down her arm. A shy smile spread over his lips as he squeezed her hand.
“He looks like you,” Jessica said, sliding her other hand on top of his. Her eyes shifted towards the corner of the room, where her sisters were still cleaning the squirming baby in a small wash basin. A small, exhausted smile crossed Jessica’s face. Her voice was barely above a whisper as she continued, “He has your nose.”
“You did amazing, baby” David replied, kissing her gently on the lips. Her chocolate brown hair streaked down around her face, which was sweaty from exertion. He wiped a couple of the errant strands away from her face. He leaned close, whispering into her ear. “I’m so proud of you.”
She looked up at him. In the gentle candlelight, her dark eyes glittered with specs of gold. Jessica mustered another tired smile. “I love you, David.”
“I love you too, Jessica.” He slid back against the headboard and wrapped his arm around her narrow torso. Her head lulled against his shoulder as her body drifted off to sleep. He closed his eyes, trying to un-see the blood coating the sheets around her.
“They know what they’re doing,” William replied, resting a tentative hand on David’s shoulder, pulling him back from the moment. He cracked an unconscious smile. “Anna has helped with dozens of deliveries. Besides, she got Jess through having Thomas.”William spoke quickly, his voice unconsciously trying to cover the screams coming from the other room.
Looking into his brother-in-law’s lined eyes, David could see the nerves which were starting to make an appearance. They had been listening to Jessica’s screams bleed through the thin walls of the room for the last four hours. It wasn’t getting better.
“It’ll be fine,” William added, trying to reassure himself. He pulled a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. His fingers trembled as he struck the match. Lighting the cigarette, he glanced towards the door before meeting David’s eyes once again. “Besides, Jessica is strong. She’ll get through this.”
The empty brandy glass slipped from David’s fingers, shattering on the dingy, gray kitchen tile. “Fuck!” David muttered, crouching to gather up the shards of glass. Looking up, he glanced in the direction of the crib where the baby had stood up and had started to scream. “Would you-” David asked, looking towards William.
William pushed himself up from the dining room table and stabbed his cigarette out in the ashtray he shuffled out into the living room. Thomas looked up and greeted his uncle with open arms, pleading to be freed from the crib.
David yelped and pulled his hand back sharply. A shard of glass had sliced through the thin skin just above his wedding band. He pushed himself to his feet, pulling his handkerchief from his pocket with his other hand.
The chaos in the bedroom suddenly quieted, plunging everything into an uncomfortable silence. His wife had stopped screaming. David looked towards the door, his stomach churning. His eyes shot towards the washbasin, which was sitting in the corner of the room.
Winding his handkerchief around his finger, David glanced over at William, who was cradling Thomas in his arms. “I’ll take him,” he said, walking towards them as he tried to keep pressure on his finger. The blood turned his white handkerchief a deep shade of crimson.
William turned around and handed the squirming toddler to his father. “Are you sure?”
David took his son in his arms, pulling Thomas’ small frame securely to his chest. Closing his eyes, David buried his head in the boy’s blonde curls, inhaling deeply. The baby’s hair was freshly washed, the smell of Jessica’s favorite lavender soap flooded his nostrils.
Thomas buried his face in David’s shirt, his pained sniffling gradually quieting as the crying fit passed.
“Doctor,” David heard William say as the door creaked open behind them. He opened his eyes and turned instinctively towards the noise. He lowered Thomas from his face, letting the baby settle quietly against his shoulder.
Dr. Joseph Stern had stepped out of the bedroom. The elderly man looked around the living room for a moment. His lined, gray eyes had a dazed air to them; he seemed to be collecting the strength to speak. His shoulders were hunched in exhaustion. He could barely raise his head enough to glance around the room.
David felt dread bubbling in the pit of his stomach. He could hear his heart beating in his ears in the silence of the room.
David knee’s buckled slightly as his eyes were drawn to the blood coating Doctor Stern’s hands, which the elderly man was trying to subtly wipe with a rag.
David swallowed hard, his throat suddenly parched as he tried to speak.”Doctor?” He asked, trying to blink back the colored spots starting to overwhelm his vision. He licked his lips as he continued, “What happened?”
“I’m sorry Mr. Freeman.”
Seeing David’s unsteadiness, William pulled the baby out of his hands, cradling his nephew tightly against his body.
With his hands free, David braced his weight on the edge of the counter as the spots continued to cloud his vision. He closed his eyes, sucking in deep breaths, trying to calm the nausea pulsating through his system.
“Doctor? My wife?” David snapped, already knowing the answer to the question. He opened his eyes and looked over at the Doctor.
“Mrs. Freeman didn’t make it,” the Doctor said, his voice dropping a sympathetic octave. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his black pants, suddenly aware of the stark coloring of the blood. “Jessica hemorrhaged during the delivery. The blood loss was just too much for her.”
David threw his hand over his mouth and ran to the wash-basin as his body was racked with heaves. As the sickening sensation passed, David braced his head against the wall, sucking in shaky breaths as a sudden calm flooded his muscles.
“And the baby?” William asked, stepping forward as David struggled to collect himself in the corner.
Thomas was propped against his Uncle’s shoulder, his dark eyes shooting around the room anxiously.
William braced a supportive hand on David’s shoulder; his own hand was trembling.
The Doctor shook his head in the negative.”The baby was a girl.” His exhausted voice was devoid of any tone or emotion after the four hour delivery. He remained near the door, the blood on his hands keeping him from reaching out to David. “I’m sorry David. There was just no way to save either of them.”
David wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and slowly stood up. He blinked against the tears building in his eyes. Feeling as if he had just been punched in the gut, he inhaled sharply as he watched Stern struggle to wipe Jessica’s blood from his hands. “Can I see her?” David spoke slowly, his voice sounding hoarse to his own ears. In the last six hours, he had probably smoked a half of a pack of cigarettes, the evidence was starting to build up in the small ceramic ashtray on the kitchen table. His hands blindly searched his pockets for another cigarette.
Stern looked him up and down, studying David with a reluctant, medically trained eye. “Are you sure? Take a minute and sit down.” He reached out with a steadying hand, placing it on David’s elbow.
William put Thomas back down in his crib, and turned to face David. He reached out, grabbing David by the arm. “Please sit down, David. You look about ready to faint.”
David raised his hand, stepping back from the two men on unsteady feet. The spots dancing through his vision were slowly starting to fade. He blinked back the sensation further. “I want to see my wife.” David paused, his voice was sharper than he had anticipated. He paused for a moment, trying to put a check on his tone. He licked his parched lips and looked up at the Doctor. He continued, his voice softer. “Please.”
The Doctor continued quietly. He had gone through this too many times in the past,”Your wife’s sisters are paying their respects. You may go in after. I’m sure you want to be alone with her.” The Doctor disappeared into the corner of the room, slowly scrubbing his hands in the washbasin.
After a few minutes, the door opened once again. Katherine and Anna Conlon shuffled out of the bedroom, their arms wound around each other for support. The spinsters had lived together their whole lives, only recently moving from their family home into a tenement on Second Avenue, while continuing to work at the family dry goods store. Even though she was the youngest, Jessica had been the first to split off from the family. David had always assumed that was why her family had never particularly warmed to him. He had stolen their little girl.
Both women sobbed inconsolably as they moved through the living room. Anna spun abruptly as she passed David. She quickly wiped her nose, her emotion immediately exploding into a passionate anger. “You! You did this to her!”
Though she barely reached five foot, Anna presented a feisty and intimidating figure as she threw herself right up against David’s five foot ten inch frame. Her voice wavered with repressed emotion as she jabbed her finger in his face, emphasizing her point further. The Irish accent she worked so hard to repress came back in full force, as it always did when she became really angry. “It’s your fucking fault! You killed her. The doctor said she shouldn’t…that she couldn’t have any more children. You did it anyway! How could you do that to your own wife?”
“Typical English ass,” Katherine said, chiming in. She wrapped her arm around Anna’s shoulder as her sister dissolved into tears.
William rushed up, trying to insert himself between his sisters and David, but Katherine continued her sister’s argument with ferocity. “Using up everything in your path! Jessica was in no condition to have another baby! Yet you went and did it to her anyway.”
“Let’s get you home,” William said, guiding the two women to the door. He held open the door as he steered the women into the hallway. “You both need sleep.”
“You couldn’t turn it off!” Anna cried, glancing over her shoulder. “You’re an animal!”
William turned back to David. His eyes reflected the exhaustion which permeated the room. “I’m sorry. She didn’t mean it.”
“Yes, she did.” Blinking back tears once again, David pushed passed them, shutting the door to the bedroom behind him.
David stared at the knots on the unpolished wooden door, suddenly petrified to turn around. He knew reality was staring him in the face as he was swallowed up in the oppressive stillness of the room.
The longer he stared at the door, the longer there was still a chance for Jessica to say something, to prove it was all a mistake, that she wasn’t really gone.
Turning around, he slowly walked up to the bed. Had it not been for the torrents of crimson soaking the sheets, Jessica could have just been sleeping. Her hair was still pulled back in the quick bun she had fastened before she went into labor. Her forehead still glistened with sweat. Despite the sounds which had been coming from the room just a short time before, her face was peaceful. Her eyes were closed.
“I think it’s that time,” Jessica said, struggling to sit up in bed. She reached for her stomach, struggling to breathe through the sharp contraction which had knocked her out of a sound sleep.
“Baby,” David said, reaching for her hand as he got his bearings. She had nudged him out of a deep sleep. He leapt to his feet, reaching for the robe he had draped over a chair near the bed.
Fastening the tie around his waist, he turned to the bedside table searching for his glasses.
The night had been yet another heavy one. David had propped the bedroom window wide open, trying to encourage any breeze to make sleep come easier.
“I’m fine,” Jessica said, closing her eyes. She slowly exhaled through her nose, hoping to ease the pain coursing through her system. She looked up at him, mustering a pained smile as she collected herself. “It just took me a little by surprise. I’m all right.”
“I’ll telephone the Doctor,” David said, moving towards the living room. As he opened the closed door, he turned around as he heard her let out a surprised gasp. “Jess?”
“I’m okay,” she called after him, mustering another smile. He could see a look of concern quickly pass over her face as she shuffled slightly in bed. She brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes as she continued. “Telephone Doctor Stern please, darling. Just hurry.”
Crossing the living room to the telephone, David looked over at the baby, who was snoring soundly in his crib. Thomas had sprawled out on his stomach. He had kicked off his blanket in the heat of the night.
“David,” Jessica said, reaching for him as he reentered the bedroom. He took her hand inside his as he sat down on the edge of the bed. He ran his free hand through her hair, which was already coated with a thin layer of sweat. “I’m here,” he said. “I’m not leaving you, Jess.”
“Is Thomas asleep?” She asked. Her head was resting against the metal headboard of their double bed, her eyes closed. The color had drained from her cheeks.
“Snoring soundly.” David said, smiling at the image. He watched her carefully, moving his other hand on top of her’s. “Drooling a little too.”
She turned her head and looked over at him. “Would you tell him that Mommy loves him?” She asked, after a moment of contemplation. She reached over, running her fingers down his cheek. “Please?”
David felt his stomach flip as he brushed a strand of hair out of her face. Her normally calm eyes were moist, the slightest hint of fear visible deep inside. “He knows that, Jess.” He said, trying to keep his tone soothing for her. A soft smile spread across his face as he ran his thumb over her full lips. He wrapped his other arm around her neck, leaning into her body until they were nose to nose. “He knows you love him.”
“Just tell him that for me,” she said, exhaling softly. She squeezed the hand draped over her shoulder. She looked up at him, making unblinking eye contact. “Please, David.”
Leaving a heavy hand on the doorknob, David looked Jessica up and down. He bit his lip, and climbed into the bed next to her. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, burying his head in the shoulder of her silky, floral print material of her nightgown. “I love you Jessica,” he said, the words catching in his throat. He hugged her body tightly as his eyes filled with tears once again. The simple sentence was all he could muster. His voice, hoarse from one too many cigarettes, could hardly string two words together.
He forced out a sharp, shaky breath before continuing, “You- you promised me you could get through this.” He ran his fingers down her cheeks. Her skin was still warm and soft. “You can’t leave me. I-I don’t think I can do this by myself. I love you so much.”
He stared at the ceiling, taking a minute to find the words he searched for in his head. “I’m sorry, Jessica.” His tongue tripped over the words, which were slow coming out of his foggy mind.
David looked up as the street car rattled to a stop.
They had moved into a tenement on Second Avenue and 42nd Street two years earlier, just after the wedding.
The massive brick building had been filled with young couples and growing, working class families. Compared to the rodent infested shack he had grown up in, the two, tiny rooms felt almost palatial.
Jessica had been almost twenty-one, and just over five months pregnant when they were married. She had tailored the dress herself, desperate to keep her tell-tale bump hidden from her mother and sisters.
As long as he had known Jessica, she had struggled with her reputation as the rebel of the family. Of her four sisters, two had become nuns, while Anna and Katherine remained chaste in their own way, living together rather than marrying. Jessica had been the sister who moved out of the family tenement. She developed an interest in politics, especially the conditions in her family’s home country of Ireland. While her entire family were in favor of Irish Independence, she was the only one who could actually speak to what was happening.
Stepping off the streetcar on the corner of 42nd Street, David felt a pang in his stomach as a wave of nausea passed over him. He had been avoiding coming back here, trying to stay away from all the memories, but he had run out of excuses. He could feel his chest tightening, and it took all his restraint to put his hand on the doorknob to enter the building.
Stretching along the eastern edge of Midtown, the long blocks of Murray Hill were lined with new brownstones and freshly planted trees. It felt quiet and insulated, protected from the dated construction and constricting crowds which had taken over the rest of Manhattan.
He had circled the blocks half a dozen times with Jessica before they had finally rented the space. They had liked the quiet nature of the neighborhood. Jessica had been won over by the sight of a young mother playing hopscotch with two toddlers in front of their brownstone.
The tenement dated back to just after the Civil War. The interior was just starting to show the creeping onset of age in the once elegant decor. As David climbed the creaking wooden staircase to the 10th floor, the yellow patterned wallpaper was starting to fade and peel in the most traveled areas. The local kids had started leaving graffiti on the walls, the wallpaper had smeared where the landlord had once attempted to scrub the landings clean.
David took a centering breath before pushing open the door to apartment 1027. The door scratched loudly against the hardwood floors of the living room as he stepped inside.
“Where the hell were you?” Anna asked, looking up from where she was sitting. A stack of photographs spilled over the kitchen table. Anna’s lined eyes stared at him harshly under her thick spectacles. She braced her hands on her hips, waiting for his answer. She had Thomas propped against her shoulder, sleeping soundly. She continued softly, attempting not to disturb her sleeping nephew. “Well?”
“My sister asked me over for coffee,” David replied, hanging his cap on the hat rack just inside the door. He walked into the living room, and draped his suit jacket over one of the dining room chairs.
David paused for a moment and looked around the living room. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. “I got held up at work and have been running late all day.” He deliberately shifted his eyes from the signs of Jessica still littering the apartment. He hadn’t had the time or the strength to move the shoes still sitting by the door, or the handbag laying open on the kitchen counter. “I’m sorry.”
Jessica had spent months delicately decorating the tiny rooms. The walls were covered in a lightly patterned, ivory colored paper. The furniture, while purchased second hand, was still three months of his salary. The room was lit through the tiny living room window. He could see the sun setting just over the river.
David walked over to the kitchen and looked down at the pictures strewn across the table. Anna had found his stash of family photos. “What are you doing with these?” David asked, tearing his eyes from the photographs to look up at her.
Anna had been looking at their wedding photographs. Flipping through the stack, he saw pictures of himself looking dazed and completely unsure of how he had managed to catch such an amazing girl. Jessica stood close to him on the warm pavement outside the church. Her dark eyes stood out dramatically against her thick, white satin dress. Her fingers white knuckled her large bouquet tightly in front of her body, covering their unplanned pregnancy.
Even though they had been together for three years, he had still found it difficult to read Jessica. She always had an inherent complication to her manner. It was in her eyes. She had dark, intelligent eyes which seemed to have experienced more than she would normally have in her twenty-one years.
“Happy?” David asked Jessica, not bothering to look over at the photographer capturing the crowds mulling outside of St. Agnes’ Cathedral. The wedding party had spilled out of the close, hot church onto East 43rd Street.
Stifling was the best word to describe that particular day in Manhattan. David could see heat waves bouncing off the cracked sidewalk. A summertime like humidity hung in the air like a wet blanket, making the air feel heavy and sticky.The calendar said March 22nd, but it felt more like August.
Jessica turned to face him, a slow smile crossing her lips. She took a step into his body, wrapping her arms around his waist, pulling her body tightly into his. “Very happy, Mr. Freeman.”
“You look beautiful,” David said, staring down into her open, heart shaped face. He brushed the veil gently away from her eyes which stood out against the creamy, white satin of her floor length, wedding gown. His hand fluttered over her stomach, and for the first time she didn’t flinch. “You’re glowing.”
“I wish I could say it was as delicate as that,” Jessica said, her eyes shifting to the photographer. She began fanning herself gently with her free hand; a layer of sweat covered her forehead. She chuckled as she looked around at the wedding goers hovering around them. “Layered satin at this time of year wasn’t my smartest decision, especially in my current condition.”
“I’m not sure marrying me was your smartest decision,” David said.
“I disagree,” Jessica said, flashing a bright smile in his direction. She shook her head slightly. “My family seems to think it’s you who is stuck with me.” She held onto his hand tightly, firmly pressing her body into his. As they dissolved into a kiss, they were alone on the sidewalk.
“Can you put those away?” David asked, looking up from the painful memories covering the table. His voice was pleading as he turned to face Anna. “I can’t look at those right now.” He crossed the room, terminating the memories looping in his head.
“She was my sister too,” Anna said, walking over and laying Thomas in his crib. She struggled to keep her voice at a civilized level as she turned back to face him. He had touched a nerve. Her voice was a sharp whisper as she continued. “You aren’t the only one who loved her.”
“You don’t think I realize that?” David snapped.
David opened the cabinet, and slowly brought a loaf of bread down onto the counter. He looked down at the bread. He closed his eyes, fighting to keep his composure under control. He grabbed a nearby knife.
“I understand that,” David snapped, looking up at her. The knife was white knuckled in his fingers, and crashed loudly on the tile floor. He looked up at her and ran his fingers through his hair as he knelt to pick up the knife.
His eyes shot towards the living room. Thomas was fast asleep in his crib. The baby kicked his legs and shuffled on the mattress at the sudden noise in the living room, but he didn’t wake up. David continued quietly, “Look Anna, I’m sorry. Is there any way you can keep Tommy for the night?”
“All night?” Anna asked; her eyes scrutinizing him harshly. She turned up her nose, judgement dripping from her expression. She unhooked the top button on her blouse, slowly fanning herself with the back of her hand. She took two steps toward him as she continued, “You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?”
“I’ll be back in the morning,” David added quickly, anticipating her next question. He looked down at his hands. He could feel them trembling violently as he held them at his side. He plunged them deep into his pockets, as he looked up at her. “I just need a little more time-“
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Anna moved across the room to meet him. She took off her apron and draped it over one of the chairs. “I’ve been here all day watching your son, and you’ve been out drinking? You were with that whore, weren’t you? Do you think Jessica didn’t know about that slut you kept?”
David took off his glasses and painfully rubbed the bridge of his nose. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to bring relief to his aching eyes. His tear ducts felt dry and they burned. “She isn’t…” His voice was quiet, exhausted. He stopped, not wanting to justify anything to her. He continued, speaking slowly in a fight to keep his voice even. “Can you watch him, or can’t you?”
“I suppose the boy needs some kind of guardian,” Anna said, simply. She turned and looked toward Thomas. The baby was in his crib, sleeping in his own world. When she turned back to face David, her eyes were harsh as she looked him over quickly, her words cutting. “If it’s not going to be his father.” She stopped, tucking a strand of her dark hair into her prim up-do.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” David said. He didn’t meet her eyes as he turned to leave the apartment. As he put his hand on the doorknob, he turned around a final time to speak to her. He thought for a moment more, simplicity was better. He coughed, keeping his voice even. “Thank you, Anna.”
He didn’t stop to wait for a reply as he exited the room, the thick wooden door slamming behind him.
He took the stairs two at a time as he hurried towards the front entrance of the building. An embarrassed flush was spreading over his face as he moved, his cheeks starting to burn.