The Blameless Bystander Ch. 11byAutumnWriter©
© Copyright 2006, 2007
Chapter 11—Winds of Change
In Irish families a certain custom looms over hearth and mantle of every home. It is more important in some families than others, and is an oft-broken tradition. It is, then, the existence more than the practice of the tradition that quickens the Irish heart.
It was largely because of this reason that James was grateful for his invitation to take Thanksgiving dinner with Shirley Jacobs and her family. It was a good excuse that he could use to turn down his parents' invitation. There weren't hard feelings between them. He only he wished to avoid the looks of sadness that he saw painted on their faces when he last stayed at his boyhood home.
In the Irish tradition, it is the duty of every family to give one son or daughter to the service of the Church. James—Jamie back in those old days—had been that chosen scion, the fulfillment of the familial obligation. When James announced to his shocked parents that he was forsaking his vows, they were more devastated than Father Brendan. It was a renege on their gift to God. They assumed the fault and guilt, profligate with the flesh of their flesh. James was sure that they still felt the same, expected probing in the vain hope that he would beg the Order to take him back. He loved his parents, but the physical distance between him and they served a good purpose.
In James' Guatemala days the priests were invited to the celebrations on Christmas, Easter and applicable feast days. They were always welcome, surfeited with food and drink by the faithful who longed for closeness to them. As guests, they brought blessings and Communion to bestow on the villagers and it was more than enough. As the hour became late, they prepared to leave, and the people were grateful for that, too. The presence of the priests chilled, as well as warmed, the fiestas. With their departure, the real festivities began. James wondered if a teacher at Thanksgiving dinner would have the same effect.
James made a list of things to buy that he could bring with him to the dinner. Of course Shirley had refused all offers, but James wouldn't show up empty-handed.
"If you're gonna be all alone, you may as well come eat with us," Shirley blurted out, after retrieving Raymond after his most recent tutoring session. "You don't have to bring nothin'—just yourself."
James gratefully accepted on the spot. "It won't be too fancy!" she warned after he said 'yes', as though she was saving that part until he committed himself. Raymond handed him a note with the directions the next day at school.
James went to the grocery store with more intentions than plans. He had already bought some wine for the dinner table, a Riesling produced not far from where he and Vicki stayed a few weeks before. He bought a box of chocolates for afterward and some flowers for the table. Something for the children came to mind. A sack of large navel oranges did nicely, and a few bottles of grape juice that looked like wine were the final touch.
James was sitting in a chair in the living area of the Jacobs' apartment nursing a beer while Shirley finished preparing the dinner. Raymond wanted to visit with him, but as the oldest had to help his mother in the kitchen. James offered his services and when he did Shirley handed him the beer instead. He had no kitchen skills, so any attempt to contribute to the turkey dinner would have been risky, at best.
He sat quietly reading a magazine. Before long he noticed that he was under observation by a miniature face with straight black hair, matched with two tiny, round, dark-brown eyes. James assumed it to be Raymond's youngest sister. He pegged her at five or six years old. When the little girl realized that he had spied her she ran away as would a wary rabbit to a place of safety behind her mother's skirt and apron. From there she peered out, fathoming the tall stranger with the thinning red hair and pale skin.
"What is it, Lucy?" her mother asked, sounding only slightly annoyed. She bent low and Lucy whispered in her mother's ear, and her mother whispered something back. She ran out into the room, abandoning her defensive position, and then disappeared into the bedroom area.
A short time later the girl reappeared, tiptoeing out of the bedroom, clutching a piece of construction paper. She approached James, slowly at first, and then covered the balance of the distance with a burst of speed as if to prevent herself from changing her mind. She stopped at his chair and thrust her hands out to James with the construction paper attached.
James took the hint and took the paper from Lucy's hands. "Did you draw this, Lucy?" he asked her in a voice that portrayed amazement. She nodded her head. "I really like it. I think that it's the best drawing of a turkey that I've ever seen!"
James' praise made the child beam with pride. She did a little jump in place, an outlet for her excitement. She quickly about-faced and scurried back to her mother who was busy at the stove. Shirley bent low once again, and Lucy whispered something.
"Lucy wants you to have the picture, James," Shirley called to him from the kitchen.
"For me?" James cried out. "That's very nice of you, Lucy. Bring a crayon over and print your name on it, so that when I hang in up everyone will know who drew it." Lucy sprang back to the bedroom, emerging shortly with a brown crayon. "Not too big," James told her. "We don't want to cover up his beautiful feathers."
Lucy was able to print her first name slowly. To help her print "Jacobs" James wrote the letters on a piece of newspaper that he found nearby and the child copied it.
As she finished the last letter one of her siblings shrieked "Tracey's here!" The household gathered at the door.
"Glad you could make it," Shirley greeted her grown stepdaughter cautiously.
"I wouldn't have missed it. I was surprised when you invited me!" Tracey answered. She handed Raymond a covered pie plate. "I brought dessert," she announced. Tracey glanced over to see James standing in the background. "Raymond told me that Shirley was thinking of inviting you," she said. Back in the kitchen, a wry smile formed on Shirley's face. Tracey made her way to help Shirley with the cooking, but it wasn't easy. The children swarmed over her.
As Shirley's family and James gathered at the table, Shirley seated James and Tracey next to one another. James and Tracey secretly gave one another embarrassed, knowing looks.
"Well, my man's not here," Shirley started after all ten people found their seats. "If he were, he would say the grace," Shirley said apologetically. "I guess that would mean that it's up to you to say the grace, James."
James paused for a second, uncomfortable at his ascendancy. "With his father not here, don't you think that Raymond should say it in his place?"
James' pronouncement startled Raymond. At first his chest puffed with pride. Then his face lost expression and his jaw dropped. "I've never done that before," the youth protested.
"Everyone says that once in their life. Go ahead, it's easy," James admonished gently. Raymond shrugged his shoulders. "Just tell God what you think that everyone is thankful for," James added.
"Everyone's got so much to be thankful for it's hard to begin!" a re-inspired Raymond exclaimed.
"You see?" James said, "You've said it already. Your job is done."
When they finished the main course they decided to allow an interval of time before serving dessert. The children, tired of sitting still, left the table. The adults, including Raymond remained, finishing the bottle of wine.
"Raymond had a wonderful time at his visit to Rochester," Tracey told James.
"He certainly did," Shirley agreed. "He told me all about it, but I didn't understand much of it."
"Raymond has much to think about in these next months," James said. "It was a good idea to see what it was like in person."
"Most of the engineers who I met there were Mechanical Engineers," Raymond added. "I liked being in the factory."
"Do you think that he belongs in a university like Cornell?" Tracey queried.
"I've seen many good students in my years of teaching Math. Raymond can more than hold his own," James assured them. "Did you tell Mr. Thompson about your trip?"
"Yes," Raymond answered. "He said that he would read up on the universities that I applied to."
"Don't let him do all the work," James said. "Read up on them, yourself." Raymond nodded.
"If it weren't for you, things might not be going so well for him," Tracey blurted out.
James was embarrassed. "It's a lot of fun for me to do it. I love math, and I enjoy being around other people who do, too. I don't know what I'll do when Raymond is away next Fall." It was Raymond's turn to be embarrassed.
They were quiet for a few seconds, until the children came running to the table cajoling for dessert.
As James drove home later, Lucy's turkey drawing was on the seat next to him. It was hardly a Picasso—it was far more valuable. To James, the affection showed him by the small child vindicated his innocence of all of what others had accused him. He cemented the conversation at the table into his memory. What he said was true; he enjoyed exercising his math skills with his able student, and he liked Raymond and his family. He hadn't told it all, though, because he knew that they would never understand him.
"If I ever become a good person, I'll owe it to Raymond," he said out loud to...himself...or perhaps, to Someone else.
As was his custom, James placed an envelope with his rent check in Mrs. Wilkinson's mailbox on the last day of every month. His rental agreement was on a month to month basis, so a few days after Thanksgiving he covered himself for December. Every month he wondered how many more months he would remain in his tiny rooming house flat. The facilities were good enough for a single man who never had guests. The location was ideal—he could walk to work if he chose. It was a perfect neighborhood to form a number of potential routes for his running. And speaking of that, he always looked for Tracey as he made his early morning rounds. She was appearing less often, lately.
The only drawback to James' apartment was the presence of his landlady, whom he never managed to like, but learned to tolerate. She had been less prying of late, although he wondered a few times if she had made a few of her inspection tours while he was at work. Mostly, the price was right. He was just finishing paying his brother for his car and was trying to sock away a rainy day fund.
James returned home later that day. It was raining, a lazy kind of drizzle. He glanced up to the sky to gauge the dark clouds, wondering if it would get cold enough to snow. A drop of a few more degrees would do the trick. He picked up the mail from his mailbox as he passed the row of boxes. He didn't look at it right away, preferring to get out of the weather. He did see Mrs. Wilkinson in the window peering at him with that suspicious squint that she always seemed to have affixed to her face.
James entered his apartment and placed the mail on the table and tossed his coat on a chair across the room. He felt like a Scotch. It hadn't been an easy day at school. It was review time with midterm exams around the corner. The students, just returned from the Thanksgiving holiday, were restless, and reviewing old material isn't very exciting for young people in a holiday mood.
He dropped several ice cubes into a tumbler and poured in the scotch. It was a stiff one, but would last him the whole night. Before he would get to the end, the melting ice would dilute it to highball status. He turned his attention to the pile of mail on the table.
One item was the phone bill; there was some junk-mail, as usual; not much else. The final item was an envelope that had been placed in the box by Mrs. Wilkinson. He recognized her handwriting scribbled across the front. It was probably his receipt for December's rent, he thought, but it was odd because she seldom used an envelope, just stuck the receipt loose in his box. It was probably because of the weather.
James tore the envelope open and was treated to a rude surprise. "Notice of Rental Termination" was the heading across the top of the single page. It was a Photostat of a canned form wherein she had filled the blanks. The rest of the letter didn't say very much, just that he had to be out by the end of the month and leave the propane tank full.
James hadn't expected the notice. Now that he had it, the surprise wore off quickly. With his identity revealed, his presence no longer served Mrs. Wilkinson, and by nexus, her daughter, Doris. Inside scoop had become public information. He had heard rumors that it was Doris who shouted his name out at the School Board meeting. Now, he was sure of it; at the same time, he didn't care.
He thought about running down to confront the nasty old hag. He was about to, but thought better of it. She would be waiting for him—that was sure. He decided to let her stew until morning. He decided to read for a while and correct some papers. At any rate, he stopped worrying about it. He had a glassful of scotch going to waste.
In the morning he completed his run. He decided not to speak to her until he returned home from school that afternoon. He'd ask a few people in school if they knew where he could find a good place. He had lunch with Vicki in the Teachers' Lounge.
"You might find it difficult at this time of year, especially being known as you are." Vicki warned. "Doris' mother was smart. The law says that a tenant gets a full month's notice to quit an apartment. By doing it on the last day of the month she gave you the shortest time possible."
"You mean, if I had paid my rent a day late I would have gotten an extra thirty days?" James asked.
"Probably so," Vicki answered. "It would be different if you had a lease. Where were you thinking of looking?"
"I don't even know where to start," James admitted. "It looks like I'll have to learn fast. The problem is that it has to be a furnished place. I don't have any furniture."
"You'll find someplace. Just keep looking," Vicki assured him. "You can spend some time at my place, but we need to be careful. Once people know that you're kicked out of your apartment, they'll start watching to see if you're shacking with anyone. I'd rather not face that."
"How would they find out?" James asked.
"You've forgotten all about Doris," Vicki reminded him. "She'll spread the word like wildfire. In fact, we better break this up before she shows up and sees us. Come to my place tonight and we'll go through the paper—and we'll do something later that'll take your mind off your troubles." After she made the date, Vicki picked up her tray and shuffled off.
When James arrived home he strode past his landlady's front door, but she called to him and James walked to face her on her porch where she was standing.
"Did you get my notice?" she demanded as she squinted at him.
"I sure did," James answered. "I plan to be out by the deadline."
"I won't have child molesters living on my place!" she declared.
"I'm not that, but it doesn't matter to me if you believe it or not," James answered back.
"I saw you take that Indian boy up there," she retorted.
"I was tutoring the boy in math," James replied with some anger. "For the record, I deny doing anything wrong. Other than that, I don't want to discuss it with you."
"I don't want any Indians on my place, either," she hissed as James turned his back and walked away. "He wasn't even a full Indian, just a half-breed," she mumbled to herself as she turned toward her door. "Just be sure to out on time!" she yelled at James as he disappeared around the corner.
In the next days James found much difficulty finding a place to live. He was determined not to impose on Vicki. He sensed her discomfort well enough and he wasn't sure if he was ready for co-habitation either—even for a short time. Staying overnight for fun and games was much different than learning to leave the toilet seat down and having the television on when trying to read.
There were only a few openings for furnished apartments. Several landlords with openings refused to rent to him because of his notoriety. A few landlords were willing, but their places were only fit for the rats which had already claimed them. James finally settled for a furnished trailer in a trailer park about three miles outside of town. It was quite similar to that where he had taken Thanksgiving dinner not long before. It would do until Spring.
Ethan Chandler peeked into his daughter's room after dinner, expecting to find her busy with her homework. She had been staying in at night lately, and that suited him fine. If he could, he thought that he'd have a father-daughter chat and see what her thoughts were about her college applications. To his surprise, she wasn't in her room, although the desk lamp was turned on. He glanced across the hallway at the closed bathroom door and light leaking out the space between the floor and bottom of the door. He shrugged, being accustomed to the women in the house monopolizing the bathroom. He would come back later.
As he passed the door on his way to the stairs he heard a noise that made him stop and listen harder. He heard it again, and realized that it was Becky inside the bathroom sobbing. He froze in place and heard her once again.
"Becky," he spoke loudly to be heard through the door. "Is everything alright in there?" His voice carried little alarm. In his experience, tears in the bathroom meant an outbreak of pimples, or the gain of a few extra pounds.
Becky didn't answer, but cried louder.
"Becky, what is it? Are you sick?" he yelled. By this time, Judith had joined him, alerted by the commotion.
"Becky, let us in!" the mother called out. "You can't stay in there forever." She wiggled the locked doorknob for emphasis.
"What could be wrong with her?" Ethan asked his wife.
"I think I know, but we'll find out soon enough," Judith replied. The mother's words must have been heard, because there was a click of the lock and the bathroom door swung slowly open. Becky stood at the sink fully clothed. Her face was red from crying and she hung her head. Her blonde hair fell unkempt in front of her face.
"Oh, no! I thought it was this," her mother whispered.
"What is this?" a confused Ethan asked loudly. On the sink he there was a mini beaker filled with urine. A little stick lay along side, stained blue at the end. "What's all this stuff? Is this a drug test?"
Becky slowly shook her head and let out another sob. "Tell your father," her mother commanded. Becky didn't answer, just kept her head hung low. Judith turned to her husband. "It's a pregnancy test kit. That blue stain on the stick means that she's pregnant."
"Pregnant?" the father roared. "It can't be!"
"I'm afraid that it is, Ethan," Judith answered. "I knew that she missed her period; I've noticed some other things about her appearance, too. I was hoping so much that I was wrong, but I knew deep-down that I wasn't."
"With whom hast thou sinned, child?" the father asked sternly, adopting a biblical tone.
"It doesn't matter who the father is," Judith said calmly. "You're forgetting that she's not a child—at least in years. She's eighteen."
"Tell me who it is!" Ethan demanded, his anger growing. "You've brought shame upon this house!"
"No—I can't," Becky blurted out between sobs.
"How can I preach to my flock when they know that mine own abode is stained with transgression?" Ethan picked up the empty text kit box. "Where did you get this contraption?"
"Mr. O'Toole got it for me, but..." she began the answer.