A Surprise to the Max

by Rusty RedNightBird

 

Title graphic for the story, includes an image of Joe Maxwell and a New York City subway tunnel.The 14 year old boy clearly remembered the Funeral. Cops stuck together, the Blue Brotherhood they called it, and he understood the layers of support that appeared at his home in the weeks following his Dad’s burial.

Joe Maxwell was just a kid, or so his sweet Italian mother thought the night Joe made it to the door before she could get her robe tied over her pregnant belly.

“Is Mrs. Maxwell home?” the taller Detective asked Joe in a low voice. The uniformed cop next to him looked nervous. Joe attempted to turn quickly but felt his Mother’s hands grasp each of his shoulders to slide him aside. Before either of the men on the door mat could speak, he felt his Mother’s hands slide downward; the man in uniform caught her only to carry her to the worn sofa.

The incense, the heavy Latin chanting, the black robed priest – all of it twisted Joe’s guts. Father Cimino thought it would be Joe’s finest hour to serve as an Altar Boy for his own Father’s Funeral, sure it kept Joe’s mind off his kid sister and his Mom’s tears; it worked for the moment. He drove his brain to remember the wine, the water, and the right time to clap the wooden blocks at the Kyrie eleison. “No bells today, son.” Father Cimino said as he instructed the Altar boys to remove the quad of bells on the altar steps.

In weeks the frozen ziti was gone, the pickle jar of crumpled bills was spent, and his Mom spent careful hours diagraming their budget while Joe cleaned up his Radio Flyer wagon to begin collecting pop bottles.

It got dark earlier, and between that and the cold snap, Joe found himself home kicking himself for staying on the Junior Varsity basketball team. “It would have been something your Father would have wanted.” His Mom and his 11 year old sister, Theresa, sat in the bleachers while he ran back and forth on the boards. Between the first and second halves of the game it looked like his Mom had struck up an animated conversation with a fairly scruffy looking heavy set guy. Who the hell was he, Joe thought as he sucked down water in the side lines?

“Maxwell, get in there-“ the coach barked with a slap on Joe’s shoulder. So Joe was back in the game, and he eyes were off the women in his family.

Once the game was won, Joe rushed through his shower and rebuffed his teammates’ offers of coke and a slice. Joe beat a path to his bored sister and very pregnant Mother. What kind of a guy would hug his Mother like that? She looked a bit weepy, which she seemed to do lately, but the guy pulled a white handkerchief out of his worn trousers and dried her tears. It was all he could do to keep from sliding right in between the two of them. The guy had one arm around his Mom while his free hand dabbed at her eyes. Wasn’t she ok 15 minutes ago? Joe was perplexed, just enough to make tracks to the three of them standing in the corner of the gym.

“Hey, Mom, you ok?” Joe remembered the tone his father would take when he wanted the God’s honest truth.

“Joe, this is a friend of your father’s.” Mrs. Maxwell nodded to the bearded man, the look on her face was the happiest he’d seen in a few months. “Joe, this is William.” His Mom’s dark eyes held happy tears this time.

“William?” Joe shuffled a bit defiantly, “Just William?” Joe stuck out a hand to shake the big guy’s hand. William, a florid faced ginger haired man smelled of onions and wood fire, his eyes were serious.

“Joseph Maxwell!” Mrs. Maxwell’s eyes narrowed at her son’s retort.

William caught Joe’s hand in both of his, “Joe, I can see you’re Pat Maxwell’s son! I’m William; I served in the Navy with your Dad a long time ago.” Joe accepted the handshake with a grain of salt. William’s hands were strong and very clean although his shoes were covered in dried mud and his clothes mended with obvious stitches. Didn’t he take advantage of the GI Bill like his Dad? What was with this guy?

“Carmella, you let me know what we can do for you and the family. With Pat gone, who’s going to be with you at the hospital?” The chestnut-haired man now stood protectively over Joe’s Mom. Joe didn’t even want to think about that. He’d probably sit with his sister until one of the Irish Maxwell kin would come by the house. Wouldn’t one of his Italian Aunts sit with his Mom while she was in labor? His Mom’s sisters all had four or five kids each.

Joe’s smile twisted downward as his brows knit, why was this guy so damned worried? Joe’s analytical mind shifted into overdrive while he heard William and his Mom trade words like ‘Midwife’, ‘Mary’ and ‘Father’ without mentioning any of the priests at the parish.

“So, William, would you and Mary be dropping in to visit after the baby comes?” If Joe didn’t know who this guy was before he was going to get to know the guy drying his Mom’s tears.

William’s eyes shifted between Mrs. Maxwell and Joe. What was up?

“When is the baby due, Carmella?” William’s hands kneaded the used handkerchief.

“Doctor Beeman said I have 4 and half weeks at most.” Carmella confessed, pulling the winter coat over her belly. Joe watched as William’s eye rose to do math in the air above their heads.

“We could take the children for a few days – make it easier for you and your sisters.” Then the portly man winked at Joe and his sister. Theresa gave Joe a withering look only an adolescent girl could muster.

Joe pulled himself to his full height, “I’m 14, almost 15 I can take care of Theresa, right?” Joe relied on his sister to back him up. They’d had enough change in their life, they weren’t leaving their home.

Carmella stepped away from her children, moving William to a corner for a whisper of a few words. They occasionally stole looks at the Maxwell kids as they finished their private conversation.

Joe didn’t make the walk home easy for his Mom, “Out the blue this guy shows up and he’s all hands on. Who was he, really, Mom?” Joe buried his hands deep into his basketball jacket against the December cold.

“An old friend, someone who meant a lot to your father, Joseph.” Her large dark eyes were sad; Joe had seen this expression worn too frequently lately.

“You didn’t make plans to foist us off on a stranger did you?” Joe’s voice deepened as he spoke quietly.

“Mom, I don’t want to spend time somewhere strange.” Theresa tugged at her Mother’s sleeve with an adolescent sneer.

Carmella’s words were measured, meant to express her gentle expectations. “Whatever happens, you both need to understand it’s to be safe. I can’t bring your Father’s child into this world and worry about the two of you!”

The days stretched into a week and Joe figured the toughest task ahead would be balancing the holiday basketball schedule with the shifts he served as Altar Boy at the church. The black phone cord stretched from the hallway phone table into Joe’s room at the end of the hall. After he’d barreled in from practice and dialed Delores’ phone number, he slid to the rug beside his twin bed.

“Delores, hey, I hope I’m not too late to ask you to Mike’s New Year’s party?” he’d practiced the sentence over and over, nearly missing an easy free throw during drills. The girl of his dreams was silent, he knew she was there, he could hear her breath on the receiver.  He picked the St Jude medal off his chest and kissed it, feeling this question was a lost cause.

Delores DeRosa was a dark beauty who played on the girls’ JV Basketball team. She was coltishly fast and wore ornate braids past her shoulders. He’d watch her braid her riot of dark curls before warm ups and it did things to his 14 year old soul.  “Joe, it’s only 2 weeks until the party, why’d you wait so long? How’s a girl going to get a good dress now?” Joe grit his teeth at having to build the courage, he’d been wavering between wanting to sit with his Mom and cutting loose with his friends. Delores DeRosa would be worth his first night out since his Dad’s death.

“Yeah, I’ve been . . . .” Joe hesitated to say more; everyone at the Catholic High School knew what he’d been through with assuming the role of ‘Man of the Family’.

“Of course I will. I’ve had my dress cut out for a week waiting for you to ask me!” She really knew how to make a guy melt Joe thought as he jumped to his feet. He wanted to jump into the air and silently pump his fist; he was going to a party with Delores!  He zipped his lips once he was off the phone; he didn’t want to hear it from his kid sister or get a lecture on dating quite yet. What’s so hard? You walk to the girl’s place, face her Dad, walk her to the party, spend the night listening to her talk while you eat pizza and shake cans of soda to hand off as pranks. If you’re lucky you get to hold her hand on the walk home. He hoped he was lucky.

The last day of school dragged. The hands on large white clock over St Regina Grace’s head lurched a second at a time as he was dealing with girls reacting to The Diary of Anne Frank. English class after lunch, what a mistake! The his ears pricked up at the sound of saddle shoes on the hall linoleum, the door yanked open and an Office aide thrust a note into St Regina Grace’s wrinkled hand. The student’s eyes sought out the note’s addressee as she held up the paper. The nun caught the paper and dismissed the child, read the short note and called imperiously, “Joseph Maxwell, please report to the office.”

Buzzy Spignola flicked him with a spit wad, ‘Way to go Maxwell!” as the students surrounding Joe gave him suspect looks. What the hell had he done? Joe did an earnest self-examination while he gathered up his books and grabbed his blazer off the coat hook.

“Beats me, Buzz, it just beats me.” As Joe slid into his blue blazer and shouldered his book bag he made eye contact with the nun who rode herd over the analysis of Anne Frank’s plight and accepted the note from quite possibly the oldest Nun at the school. “Thank you, Sister.”

Joe made his way silently to the office as three or four dozen things pinballed through his brain. What had he done to be called down to the office? It had to be the end of the world by the expression on the Novitiate’s face at the reception desk. Her young eyes connected to the lady sitting in the wooden chair closest to the desk, and the woman dropped her crocheting in her lap.

The woman was his Mom’s age, but he’d never seen any of his mother’s friends dressed like this. Light brown hair fell full around the woman’s delicate features then it pulled into a twisted mound. The calico skirt grazed her ankles, revealing moccasins and knitted socks. The kind of clothes his Dad would have called Hippy clothes if his sister tried to wear them.

The Novitiate stood and gestured toward the woman, “Joseph, your Aunt Bonnie has sent Mary to bring you home.” Joe’s feet froze in place. What was happening? Suddenly the air was thick, his breath caught in his throat.

“Hello, Joe, I’m a friend of your Father’s. I know William, the man you met a few nights ago.” Mary stood and stuffed the crochet project into a patchwork tote bag. She smelled of lavender and had the softest voice. “Aunt Bonnie has gone to the hospital with your Mother. It’s nothing to worry about; she asked me to walk you home.”

Joe twitched at the inference that things were normal. It was 1:24pm. If things were okay, he could have walked home as usual, for Cris-sakes. He was 14. Joe knew better than to give this little woman any lip, he nodded silently and nodded to the nuns as the two of them left the office. On the silent walk home, Joe looked for answers in the matted leaves emerging from the melting snow. He watched Mary along his side as she took measured steps and huddled within a faded wool coat. Her brows creased worriedly at each intersection as if in anticipation of ill omens.

Therese ran down the front walk and nearly knocked him over, “Mom’s at the hospital, and she’s having the baby!” She was too young and too excited to be worried. Joe was 14 and worried; Pop wasn’t going to be there to see this baby. The 14 year old man of the house had to be walked home by some old maid who probably never had a baby. Joe chewed the inside of his lip and patted Therese on the shoulder on his way in the house. He wasn’t happy with the way the day was going.

William was there, pouring hot chocolate for the four of them, “Once we hear from your Aunt we’ll know more.”

Joe didn’t like the ‘more’ part. He wanted to be at the hospital, but they didn’t let kids in. The hours ticked on with the Maxwell kids at the dinner table doing homework. No radio, no TV. William and Mary talked about what was for dinner and who was cooking it wherever they lived. Joe didn’t think they were married, even odder if they were brother and sister because they kept mentioning, ‘Father’.

By bath time the Maxwell kids had passed inspection and Mary had made herself at home in the chair their Father had always occupied. The lighting was perfect for her crocheting; the woman’s fingers never stopped. William had made his ‘good-nights’ and locked the door behind him. The kids were sent to bed, although Joe left his door open, hoping to hear a phone conversation, or any conversation at that.

Joe didn’t even feel that he’d fallen asleep until William’s large hand shook him awake, “Joe, we’re going to take a walk.” From then on Joe Maxwell walked within a long, strange fantasy.

William carried a sleeping Therese down into the basement as Joe sleep walked along side Mary. The house was dark and locked as the only sound reverberating within the brick walls was the groaning hinges of a door Joe never realized existed.  ‘Where are we going?” Joe sleepily halted, arms folded over his chest stubbornly.

Mary smiled sympathetically and drew her arm around Joe’s shoulders, “Where your Mother will be in a few days with the baby, where she’ll recover.’ With a gentle embrace Mary caught Joe’s curly hair to sooth him.

Joe’s emotions should have woken him further, only he sought solace, and it was far too easy to follow William, far too calming to break away from the comfort of lavender and roses. The next sensation was the cool dampness and what he thought were fireflies flickering ahead of them. The resonating ping of metal sang an odd lullaby that lured him toward a pair of twin beds.

William gently laid Therese down and covered her with a quilt. Somnambulant, Joe sat on the side of his twin bed, his hands between his knees in silent prayers for his Mother, and was it a boy or a girl? They hadn’t said. Joe yielded to William’s request to ‘get some sleep’ and he rolled on his side, his back to the wall to watch his sister sleep. He needed to focus, and he would . . . tomorrow.

Tomorrow became more confusing. Joe Maxwell wanted to be home, yet he found himself floating within a strange reality. He’d accompany Therese, with the other strange birds of adolescents, toward a large refectory; and the two of them would silently eat while they watched the others chattering between themselves. Joe lost track of the days while his Mother and baby brother were fussed over in a small room close to the man they called “Father”.

To Joe, Father was a brooding man, not at all like Joseph Patrick Maxwell. Where his own father blustered loudly and playfully, this grey haired man stared through old fashioned spectacles and stroked his beard. Joe stayed as far away from him as possible; bouncing his basketball off the walls of the tunnels while he wondered what he was missing in the world above.

“Joe, it was something we did together,” his Mother began as she diapered the wiggling baby in the very bed she laid in. She wasn’t moving well but she had shooed away the woman named Mary to spend some time with her ‘boys’. “Your father met these people while he walked his beat. When people were so beaten down, when they had no one, these people were the soul of charity.”

Joe shook his head in disbelief, “And you two brought our old stuff here, and left through our own basement? When were you going to tell us?” He was flustered; Joe thought he knew his parents.

“William and your Father were in the Navy; when William had some issues he became part of this community. I regret you hadn’t met him before; William generally visited your father for coffee while he worked.”

“I can’t wrap my head around this. Where do people think we are? Does the rest of the family know about this?” Now Joe clutched his basketball, nervously circling his hands around its circumference, wanting to run and bounce it furiously.

As she swaddled the infant and drew him up to her arms, her voice was firm, “No, and for good purpose, this is a secret place for many reasons.” The silence between them was perforated by pings on the pipes, something Joe had already grown used to. “Some of these people don’t fit within the world above.”

“I understand you have to be taken care of right now, and I know they want to do this here, but New Year’s Eve is coming up, and it means a lot to me. If I’m stuck down here in the center of the earth, it’ll look like I stood up Delores DeRosa!” Now his voice rose to the pitch that exposed his main apprehension.

“And God forbid you miss the social event of your life, Joe!” His Mother’s expression both comforted and confused him.

“Well, where’s the telephone to let her know I’m still alive? I’ve literally disappeared off the face of the earth!” The cords in his neck stood out in his frustration. His Mother could see his steady transformation into the man he was becoming.

“If it’s that important, we’ll get you an escort back to the house. You can check on things and perhaps bring back a few more things after you make your phone call.”

Joe’s heart sunk at the thought of returning to his home only to trudge back below the earth.

It was decided that Joe would meet a fellow by the name of Pascal at the refectory and they’d head above. Joe despondently bounced his basketball as he plodded on. With a change in the floor the ball teetered off at an odd angle and dribbled down a different path. The downward aim propelled the ball’s momentum and rapidly drew it out of sight. “CRAP” Joe’s temper flared. He’d be warned about wandering off, but he withdrew the stub of chalk he’d been given and scratched an ‘M’ on the wall as he headed into the unknown.

It was a solitary path, bizarrely lit by flecks in the walls and pinholes from above. He followed the light bouncing off of water and found the ball floating in a corner of a quiet pool. Joe skidded to a stop to admire the cathedral of pink and grey stone high above him. The pinholes of light had given way to a broad beam of light spreading from a tall crevice. It all took his breath away, distracting him from his primary goal. He rescued the ball, no worse for wear; and Joe crouched lakeside, his eyes roving slowly to eat up every detail of this strange world.

At first the figure seemed to be part of the rock formation, although black in its shape. Joe’s breath caught at invading this person’s space. “I’m sorry, didn’t mean to intrude.” Joe worried that he’d interrupted a couple under a blanket from the scope of its size.

A golden head of hair shook before the voice spoke. “No intrusion, no need for an apology.” The unfamiliar voice absolved Joe, yet the figure did not turn as it rose. The swirl of black fabric rose, and the figure walked further away along a narrow ridge. “Don’t leave on my account.”

Joe’s words tumbled out animatedly, “Well, I’m excited because I’m heading home to make a phone call to my girl. I’ve been stuck down here, and I don’t want her to think I’m standing her up on New Year’s Eve.”

The figure kept walking until Joe had said, ‘my girl’, the golden head dropped from Joe’s sight and the words oddly emanated from the higher corner of this stone cathedral. “I can only imagine your . . . enthusiasm at this event.”

“Yeah, you guys don’t have a New Year’s eve party down here, do you?” Joe wanted to see the character he was talking with but didn’t dare head toward the narrow precipice. Why hadn’t he met this deep voiced fellow?

“We have Winterfest; it’s a few weeks away.” His deep voice echoed high in the hollows, emphasizing the figure’s flat emotion at what should be a good time.

“Well excuse me, but you don’t sound like it’s all that cool.” Joe handled the basketball, fidgeting; who was this guy? He wouldn’t turn around, had he found Batman uncowled?

“Cool.” The figure fumbled at the word, and his head rose. “I’m sadly lacking in the world above’s vernacular.”

“You got the time, I could get you talking like one of the guys. It seems like I’ll be stuck here forever.” Joe tried to lighten the young man’s tone because, although the guy looked tall and broad shouldered, his manner suggested he was one of those guys who flew solo. The guy Joe would have been if he hadn’t asked Delores to the party.

“I’m afraid we haven’t met. I heard Mr. Maxwell’s family was coming below. You must be Joe?”

Joe shrugged at being talked about, being known in the shadow of his Father, wondering if he’d be worthy of walking his Father’s path. “You knew him? I mean, I’m just getting used to meeting all these people who knew him. It blows my mind, yah know?  Do you play basketball? I mean, I haven’t seen any baskets down here but if we cleared the lunch room we’d have a full court.” Joe was rattling on.

“Your Father was an understanding man; it grieved us all to lose him. On another note,” Vincent spared a chuckle, “It would set William on his ear if we hung peach baskets in the refectory.” At the thought it moved Vincent to a silent laugh, and his hand covered his mouth lest he get too comfortable and turn around to face Joe.

“So, come on down and we can take a walk to my house. We have a door to Above. I could call out for pizza, we could play table hockey, escape this place for a while.”

 “You strike an enticing invitation; my brother would be the first one to take you up on that.”

“Yeah, who’s he?” Joe was warming this guy up. If he was making a break, the more the merrier.

The voice grew somber again, “Devin, he left a few years ago. I think he’s somewhere wild. Father thinks he’s gone, dead.”

Joe wanted to offer some hope; he understood death, “But you feel him? I kinda felt my Dad the night he died, like he was saying good-bye.”

“So you understand a bond?”

“I understand family; sometimes it’s all you got.” Joe put the ball down and crouched on it, waiting to see if the figure was coming with him, “So why haven’t I met you already?”

“My appearance is different.” The backwash of Vincent’s emotions flooded his voice.

“You’re the guy I hear ‘em whispering about. Nobody will talk to me about you. What gives? You’re pretty big. Who would give you any crap?” And with that flippant question, Vincent turned slowly, his furred hands on his narrow hips. The dancing light played across the planes of his leonine face, it sparkled on red-golden hair. Joe blinked hard, and then squinted as if his sight was faltering. “Whoah, for real?”

“Yes, Joe, for real.”

The teenaged boys found friendship, and their amusing exchange resounded back up the tunnel path; and after an hour, Pascal found his way back to find the teen he was supposed to escort above.

“They’re looking for you, Joe.” Pascal was a serious teen, tapping out a pipe code on his thigh.

“I followed my basketball and found Vincent; we’ve been chewing on a few things.” Pascal oddly processed those words then nodded in understanding. “I’ve got some cash stashed upstairs. How about the three of us head up to my house, score some pizza and catch some air?”

So they did, and within Vincent’s conscience he knew he’d pay for these few hours of freedom. The row home seemed to talk to him with the winter weather battering the double paned windows. The basement was like his home, save for the small glass block window covered in snow. The wood paneled basement held a recliner chair, uncommon Below, an old refrigerator, and an entertainment center.

Joe ran up and down the wooden stairs between making phone calls for Pizza delivery and Delores. Vincent was hesitant to stay above, although Joe had talked the two upstairs to bring down ice cream and soda before the pizza arrived.

“You guys, tune in Star Trek, channel 4, OK?” Joe called down stairs in his haste to keep his guests entertained while he juggled the phone in the crook of his neck.  Delores’ voice was wistfully inviting, as soft as her hand when he’d held it last. Joe missed Delores. Badly.

Joe slogged down the stair, having ending the call that he was stuck with his family and couldn’t travel the few blocks to her house. He found his Tunnel friends sitting in silence.

“What? You guys don’t watch TV? Eweeee . . . .  Sorry guys I forgot. I thought everyone watched Star Trek.”

And that Friday night, they did. Pascal leaning forward on the sofa, absorbing the communicator’s clicks while Vincent leaned back into the overstuffed sofa, his long legs extended out, his pizza plate on his thighs, and a coke bottle in his right hand.

It was hell to pay when they returned. The telephone trip had turned into hours, the three stood speechless before the angry triumvirate of Father, Pascal, Sr., and one of Joe’s Mother’s doctors, Dr. Alcott.

The teenaged Vincent stood, shoulders erect hands folded behind his back, and Pascal adopted the same stance, in legion with his friend. Joe stood a bit apart; he knew the posture they’d adopted, and if he felt completely bad about what he’d done, he’d stand there too, like plebes. This night had gone south fast.

“Joseph Maxwell, if you knew the seriousness of this matter, perhaps you would not have included my son in your escapade.” The patriarch’s words drilled worse than a Coach’s. Father was imperious, his hands gripped on the table before him.

“Sir, if I may speak?” Joe held up his right hand as Pascal and Vincent sought some truth in the ceiling above.

“Joe, go ahead,” Dr. Alcott nodded with a look toward the Tunnel men. Joe approached the table and weighed his words.

“I met Vincent by accident, and I can understand why he’s here. When I took him to the house he never left the house, he shied away from the shuttered windows. He stayed below when the pizza guy came. All these guys did was spend some time with me in my world. We watched Star Trek and ate pizza and ice cream.” Joe threw his hands up in resignation, “The fridge was still full of Pop’s beer and none of us touched so much as 1 can between us.”

Dr. Alcott stifled a smile, as did Father. Pascal, Sr. ran a measuring thumb over his bottom lip. Then Father spoke. “Thank-you, Joe. Gentlemen, if you’ll give us a few minutes.” With a gesture Father waved them back into the hallway. Vincent’s eyes focused on the room they’d left, keeping his thoughts to himself. Joe apologized to Pascal, Jr. while he searched Vincent’s expressions.

“Vincent can hear what they’re saying,” Pascal whispered. ‘He’ll know what we’re up against punishment wise.”

“Punishment? How old are we?” Joe hissed. He’d had it. He was ready to head home if it took a box of chalk to get there.

“16, we’re both 16.” Pascal hooked a thumb toward Vincent. There was more whispering. “We have guidelines here, Joe, and whenever it involves Vincent, it’s a sore point with Father.”

And so the sentence was swift and sure. The three of them were to sand and stain the long tables in the great hall. They estimated about 25 hours of work, which Joe carefully calculated could be accomplished before December 31st. Joe checked his anger, to avoid further admonishment. New Year’s Eve was too important.

The sentence drew them together, scheduling their meals and lessons together so that when they sanded and cleaned the tables they worked together. Pascal would work silently, one ear to the ping of the pipes he aspired to work with Pascal, Sr. Vincent mildly sounded off about Father’s heavy focus on following his every hour. Joe listened, processing more about the gently strong teen than he ever thought he would. Father’s discernment over cloistering Vincent also seemed to divide him from the girls below, Livvy and Rebecca had grown up alongside Vincent, and they kept their distance. Vincent felt it was his hands and face that were his misfortune, and there had been something darker lurking in the past couple of years. Vincent’s eyes hinted at a secret ache, a lost crush.

Days later at lunch time, December 31st, Joe stood anxiously in the line carrying a tray for his Mother, who was now walking the distance from the chamber Joe had grown to understand was a hospital suite. In between words he caught the sight of her over his shoulder. She was paler and thinner than he’d remembered her, but she was below ground and it was winter. He wanted her well, he wanted his brother fat and wailing, he wanted, he wanted, he wanted. He wanted to not appear too happy when he hugged his Mom goodbye for the evening.

After his lunch, Joe hustled back to his chamber to shove a few things back into his duffle bag, begging he needed time to shower and dress. The hour hit him with the realization he hadn’t ordered a corsage. At this moment he sank in the bed along with his heart. “Damn stupid idiot, damned stupid idiot.’ It became a whispered chant as he kicked around his room. There was nothing to substitute for carnations and ribbons.  He slung the bag over his shoulder intending to stop by to say good-bye to his Mom; he cornered the archway and nearly ran into Vincent.

“You’re leaving?” Vincent seemed gloomy.

“For a few hours, see yah next year, my man.” Joe bolstered his flagging enthusiasm still worried about the lack of a corsage.

Vincent pointed to Joe in his plaid shirt and blue jeans, “Of course. Is that what you’re wearing?”

“My suit’s above, hanging in my closet. But I screwed up.”

“Screwed up?” Vincent was familiar with the saying; Mitch seemed to have done that one too many times.

“Forgot to order flowers. I don’t have a corsage for the most devastatingly beautiful woman in the world.” Joe emphasized dramatically.

For the moment ideas crowded Vincent’s mind. No flowers? No problem, he nodded sympathetically and walked beside Joe listening to his nervous rattling.

Before they approached an archway, Vincent held up a halting hand. “Wait here for moment.” Joe leaned against the tunnel wall, playing a few tunes in his head, wondering which ones he’d dance with Delores.

Vincent’s golden head popped around the side of the arch, “When do you leave for the party?”

“9, Mr. DeRosa is driving us there.” Joe pushed off the wall, curious about where and with whom Vincent was conspiring.

Vincent bobbed back inside, and within a few moments he was back in the tunnel, his clawed and furred hands deep in his trouser pockets. “We’ve got you covered. It will be like flowers, only they’ll last longer. I could tell you about it, but I’d rather you wait and see it. Pascal or I will bring it up to you.”

Joe made the last leg of the trip to his basement alone. The Tunnel’s path had been regularly lit since they’d arrived. The afternoon evaporated with Joe eating some frozen ziti and brushing his dark brown curls to the left and then to the right. Settling for simply ruffling it with his fingers he listened for the tapping on the basement door.

Dressed in the dark suit and red tie, Joe paced. Where was a guy like Vincent going to get flowers? Joe shook his head. He was between a rock and a hard place, as his Father used to say. The clock face mocked him, it was 8:30 and he was going to have to lock the front door behind him empty handed. An idiot’s rhythm mocked him until he heard the knock on the door. 8:37 p.m. Joe swung the door open and Vincent shrunk back from the wave of light. “It’s Ok, come on up”, Joe stepped back into the kitchen, coaxing Vincent to join him.

Joe turned to see the Tunnel teen’s hands together, palms holding something so cleverly contrived that Joe’s breath caught. Nimble fingers had cut and folded deep red satin into petals then red velveteen had been fashioned as the outer petals. One open rose lay beneath a half opened rose and then a tightly closed bud rested on top. The fresh green velvet was wrapped over wire and cut to form the spindly sepals along with the stipules and feathery leaves. More beautiful than mortal roses this was the perfect gift for his perfect girl.

Vincent waited, reading Joe’s awe, “Watch out the pin is 3 inches long.” He lifted the corsage while he pointed to the pearl ended pin.

“Yeah, that’d be a bust to stick her before we get to the party, wouldn’t it?” Joe moved the forever roses in the kitchen’s harsh light. The more he thought about it, the more he realized the world Below was more than a dream. “Vincent, what do I owe you? Three dollars . . . four dollars . . . five dollars?” Joe dug for cash in his pockets.

Vincent’s shaking head halted Joe’s digging. “Mary made it; she had remnants from clothing she’s cut for Winterfest. She was happy to do it for you.” Vincent now looked Joe over from glossy curls to his shined shoes. “You should be going, time to enjoy the holiday.”

Some indefinable emotion strangled Joe’s words. This event was precious to him; and from all of Vincent’s conversations while working in the Great Hall, his leonine friend doubted he would ever dance with ‘a special girl’. Suddenly Joe felt split between bolting for the DeRosa’s home and wanting to change Vincent’s prospects.

Joe recognized Vincent’s expression, not jealousy but a hungry yearning for normalcy. “Yeah, Vincent from every small thing you’ve told me, I’ll bet there are a thousand things about you that will get you the right girl.”

red rosered rosered rose

Many, many Winterfest seasons later, Joe scuttled plans for completing his mountain of paperwork. That morning Cathy Chandler had passed him a pink “While You Were Out” note written in determined handwriting, “Would it be possible for me to leave at 3:30? I have a special dinner tonight.”

The clues had been there all along. Her ‘contacts’ and sources were mysterious. She continually attended concerts in the park yet none of the other staff ever saw her there. Then there were the reports, the cases abruptly ending with dead criminals defying the coroners’ explanations. If she felt incumbent to hold his secret, Joe only felt tenfold. Cathy was Vincent’s Catherine . . . and Joe felt a solemn vow to his underground brother to watch out for her as far as his legal powers could extend.

Joe pressed the intercom and invited his employee to enter his office. Delicate fingers curled around the door as she stared wide eyed at her boss. “Have a seat, Radcliffe.” Joe leaned back, playing with a rubber band as she smoothed her skirt and took the edge of the chair, erect and on guard.

“You want to use some of that comp time and leave at 3:30?” Joe eyed the pink note, his face obscured from hers. She awaited universal mercy from the guy she had almost regarded a slave-driver.

She spoke decisively, “You bet I do. This is important, Joe, kind of an annual family party.”

Joe ruminated, wishing to extend some sort of humorous torture. “Annual family party, any chance for dancing?”

Cathy’s confusion crossed her face and she shrugged; she’d never been to Winterfest, but she thought Vincent had told her about music, so of course she would coax him into dancing. She nodded silently.

“Well, if there’s dancing why don’t you leave at 3, make sure you have comfortable shoes; your dance partner might want to cut a rug all night, you know?” Joe crumpled the pink note and dropped it into the tin beside his desk. He rose from the chair to stand over her, “Go, in fact, go now. You’re done here.”

“It’s 1:45, Joe.” She leaned back, confused. Joe nodded and made ‘scooting’ movements with both hands. “Who are you and what did you do with Joe Maxwell, Slave Driver Par Excellence?”

“Now . . . and dance your shoes off.” Joe flushed her out of the office and closed the door to lean against it.

Vincent was going to dance. He was sure his friend Vincent would have the very best of dances.

a bouqet of roses

Rusty Hough Bader

 

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