Bucks County Writers Workshop
The Marry Month of May, the Sequel: January's Disregard by Chris Bauer
O, how the month of January is maligned, so doomed it is by the saddest of circumstance, given no choice but to accept the delivery-nay, the thudding deposit-of the bill for life's excesses, the day-after price of indulgence, the sobering payment demanded forthwith for having pandered to and embraced the prior year's most celebrated highs: the holiday season, with days so bloated by givers of gifts and wishers of well that they sting love's lost heart with their absence at the mere turn of a calendar page, revealing, then, a cruel and dark month which trudges on, its ticking seconds devoid of hallelujahs, its minutes weighted by blandness, its suffocating hours and gray days moving ever so slowly onward, deep into the harshness of winter where, alas, instead of a reward for surviving the death grip of depression there is only the wanton disregard of January's own delivery, to more of the same, the month of February.
This gloomiest of months, this normally friendless January, did not enter like March's lion-cat, nor did it leave like March's lamb. No, this particular January was a chimpanzee suspended from the chandelier, who in a lovesick quest to rejoin his lost mate or die in the attempt had moved outdoors, to swing from flagpole to street lamp to leafless tree until, rather than fall to earth so exhausted and lost that he changed his species, he instead blissfully collapsed onto a bed of snow a happier, yet forever frozen, version of himself.
The current and former Miss Van Meeker Constantia Coulson debated with herself on the grocer's porch. With nothing in season should she succumb to purchasing jarred vegetables and preserves and a cured ham in a can? Or should she pay quadruple the price for imported oranges and perhaps a cantaloupe or two? And instead of ham should she buy the fish, kept fresh by the shaved ice on which it lay and the cold, snow-swollen, desolate January air?
She grimaced. Oranges and cantaloupes, yes, but her main course must be the canned ham. There would be no purchase of anything ice-nurtured. Not today, not tomorrow, perhaps not ever again, her perverse former husband to blame. She threw the fruit into her sack.
Two storefronts away a door swung open and out walked Hardy Welch hitching his trousers, the noise of the tavern's piano in his wake. Gray but content with it, and with his coat bundled up over suspendered work clothes, Hardy lumbered toward the grocer's porch.
"'Afternoon, Mrs. Pimento," he called, some trepidation in his voice. When he arrived alongside her he removed his hat, his nervous hands now feeding themselves an endless circle of hat brim. "If you be wondering why I'm here this time of day rather than tending to your ailing father, it's to run an errand for him."
She was indeed wondering just that. Hardy was her father's live-in handyman, and in deference to the foot of snow this brutal weather had deposited overnight throughout the city there would be significant shoveling required, of both the snow and the coal variety, plus other standard hygienic assistance her wheelchair-bound father needed daily. She would ask for clarification, but not until she chided him for his error. "Do NOT be so wretched as to address me as Mrs. Pimento, Mr. Welch," she said, her chin raised. "I am rid of that scoundrel. I am once again Miss Coulson. You shall address me as such."
Ah, yes. The marriage annulment, a most convenient human contrivance, had performed for her as designed, its purchase ably undoing the religious as well as the civil, yet remaining so absurdly ineffective at reversing the natural as one's attempt at closing a blossoming flower. The handyman's eyes grew big. "Aye. I understand, Mrs.-er, Miss Coulson."
Now for the clarification. "So tell me, Mr. Welch," Miss Coulson said, her back straightening, her virginity now reclaimed if in name only, "what is it my father finds so important that he sends you out on a day like this?"
"Yes. He's asked for fresh pomegranates, to be ate with his cream of wheat while he sips his breakfast Postum on the morrow, ma'am-er, miss."
Her father's spirits had suffered immensely of late. Until recently, and to her utter astonishment, he had gleefully looked forward to spending the holidays with his new wife, the former Mrs. Widdup, whom he'd taken to affectionately calling his Widdy, and who'd gone from tending to his cooking and housekeeping needs to performing other more intimate duties, the frequency of which had overcome the day-to-day misery of his debilitating confinement. Widdy's death had been a shock. 'Twas this past Thanksgiving eve, with Miss Coulson an overnight guest at her father's residence. Oh how it so repulsed her, her father tee-heeing ever so loudly in the room next to hers, him worshipping God while Widdy his wife knelt lasciviously at her father's carnal altar worshipping, ahem, him. Until, praise the Lord, the classless woman keeled over, dead from a cerebral hemorrhage, her father's only salvation a reminder from the coroner to be thankful she hadn't had a seizure as well. Serves the woman right, engaging in such an immoral act, the whore!
Pomegranates, she thought. Yes, Father's a sly one. He had used the same trick on her when she was a child and Mother was on winter holiday, sending young 'Stantia to market and telling her not to return until she'd secured some of the out of season fruit or until supper, whichever came first. What came soon after was Mother's divorce, Father's trysts with the cook the cause.
But what was he up to? His newest caretakers, Hardy and Irma Welch, were husband and wife, both nearly as elderly as her father. Widdy had seen to this, that the new help would be a couple, and an older couple at that, to eliminate the prospect of this sort of thing. And with the two of them in residence it guaranteed a nearly ever-present caretaking presence, allowing one or the other the freedom to perform errands, bona fide or not, when required.
"Mr. Welch," Miss Coulson said, pulling the handyman inside the store, "you must tell me how my father is feeling today."
"He is in the best of humor, Miss Coulson," he answered, smiling.
"Haven't seen him this cheerful since before his wife ..." he cleared his throat, "er, since before the Thanksgiving holiday. Why he's been tittering and tee-heeing a might regular these past few days."
Hmm. There could be no hanky-panky in her estimation. Aside from being married to Hardy Welch for forty-odd years, Irma Welch was also very Christian, had even begun reading the Bible to Father. This was apparently buoying him, supplying him with enough spiritual relief and direction as to lift him from his holiday despair. Quite a turnaround for a man so devastated by his new wife's death that his daughter feared, almost daily, for his well being. On news of his elevated spirits her concern dissolved. He was safe at home, she reminded herself, in the comforting stead of the good Irma Welch.
"Yoo-hoo! Hal-lo, Hardy!"
Hardy Welch acknowledged a woman's approach from across the street. "Why hello, my dearest. Find any fresh pomegranates?"
Irma Welch neared her husband for a cheek-peck, connecting then recoiling from the malfeasant odor of cigars and beer. "No, I have not. I'd ask you the same, dear husband, were it likely the taps at O'Malley's tavern could bear fruit of any kind."
Mr. Coulson's daughter was aghast. "Mrs. Welch! What is the meaning of this! If you are here, then who is caring for Father?"
Irma Welch answered contritely, "What is the meaning of what, Mrs. Pimen --"
Hardy spoke up, poking his wife's side in order that they might bypass the annulment topic. "I assure you, Miss Coulson, your father is fine. He's being visited by a doctor, and --"
"A doctor?" Miss Coulson's bony frame stiffened. "At Father's house? What in God's name has happened?"
"Now, now, miss," Hardy answered, "there's no new maladies to fret about. He's been wanting a doctor in for his counsel is all. For a gentleman's discussion. Of, ah, the philosophies of the Chinaman, if I got me meanings right."
"Philosophy my arse, husband!" Irma Welch said, still smarting from the poke to her ribs. "You know nothing, Hardy! Mr. Coulson wished a doctor in to discuss at length the provision of welfare to needy children abroad. I should know. He's had me ring up doctors daily for him, looking for just the right one to conduct his interview."
This was all so out of focus for Miss Coulson. She stammered a few syllables while the two continued bickering, then she made one final cleansing motion with her open hand. "Enough! Mrs. Welch, you must tell me exactly what Father said during his calls to these doctors."
Old Irma Welch, her fourth-grade education exceeding her loving husband's by a full three grades, answered proudly, "Why he asked each of them the same question, in the hope they could assist him in his quest."
"The question, Mrs. Welch, now, if you would!" Miss Coulson said, seething. "Tell me the question!"
Irma Welch cleared her throat. "His words were, near as I can remember, 'Can you see it clear to believe in the youth in Asia?' Yes. That's it. 'Youth in Asia. Do you believe in it?'"