Today, we’re finishing up the short fiction piece (because I write in this genre too) from Tuesday. If you missed Part I, here you go.
“No, she’s not cleaning it up,” said Bernard. From three people back in line, he saw the whole ordeal, but he kept his mouth shut. Once the TSA worker grabbed a broom and dust pan, his holy ire burned white hot. This wasn’t how the dead should be treated.
“Give me the broom. Don’t know you this is holy ground.” He unzipped his carry on and handed Hilda an empty water bottle.
“I promise it’s never been used.” He swept up the remaining ash, carefully funneled it into the bottle, and screwed the lid tight. “Now, let’s find us some holy water.”
Bernard helped Hilda to her feet and guided passed the security line, past the horrid worker still smacking her chewing gum, past the impatient passengers. Hilda, too shocked to resist, allowed him to lead her the bathrooms and the water fountains. Pulling out his rosary, Bernard reached for the bottle of ashes and turned the water on. Despite being a priest for over twenty years, he struggled to remember all of the liturgical prayers for blessing of the waters, the faithful dead, the dead in purgatory. So many prayers, so many almost empty words now. They sounded hollow every time he said them, but it was the only thing he knew to do. Looking down at his rosary and its well-worn beads, he began mumbling the first Our Father.
“But sir, I’m not Catholic,” interrupted Hilda. “Neither was my Robert.”
“Don’t have to be. But the dead deserve more respect than a broom and empty water bottle,” said Bernard. He continued the prayer then began reciting the Hail, Mary with more vigor.
“Now, go in peace.” Bernard handed Hilda her Robert’s ashes and tried walking away.
“He wanted to see the world, and I fucked it up.” Hilda cried, and Bernard knew he wouldn’t escape so easily.
“Look, lady, I’m sure you didn’t ruin anything,” said Bernard. Hilda kept standing there, shuffling her feet, waiting for him to say something. Anything would help.
“The accident was all my fault,” said Hilda. She held on to the water bottle filled to the brim with Robert. “He, my Robert, loved watching the Panthers play. And I told him to go to Lucky’s by himself.” The tears started again, and Bernard knew the drill well. He moved her to the gray plastic chairs to sit down before her uncontrollable shaking caused her to drop the water bottle.
“I told him to call a cab. I told him to call a fucking cab,” she said through her gasps for air. “But no, I let him go by himself, then there he was lying in the bed with tubes everywhere. Couldn’t walk or wipe his ass.”
“Ma’am, you can’t blame yourself. Everyone makes choices.” Bernard’s voice quieted as he choked on his cliched advice. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“To a stranger?” Who does that?” She blinked away a fear tears.
“Trust me. Lots of people line up to sit in a wood box and tell me their secrets,” he said. “This isn’t as private, but you do what you gotta do.”
“I’ve never told anyone,” said Hilda. Her hands tightened around the bottle.
“You can tell me.” Bernard rested his hands over hers and waited for Hilda to begin.
Hilda stared at the floor silent, waiting for the chatting businessmen behind them to leave. Somehow, she didn’t want everyone in the whole airport knowing just the one stranger. His black shirt and stiff white collar gave her an odd sense of comfort, even though, she never found religion very comforting at all. Too many bonnets and prayers and itchy tights and musky old ladies touching her new dress with their oiled up fingers. But today, she liked this priest’s version.
“The morning of the accident, I got laid off from United,” said Hilda. “Cause the other flight attendant told our supervisor I was having an affair with Thomas, the co-pilot.”
“Were you?” asked Bernard. The question punctuated the conversation with silence. Both of them could feel the gap widening between them and shrinking at the same time.
“Don’t I wish, but no. Thomas never noticed me until after I got fired. Felt bad about that lying bitch.” She smoothed the wrinkles in her shirt and watched the people milling about the airport’s Starbucks.
“As I was driving home, Thomas called and wanted to talk. I swear just talk. Nothing else,” she whispered. “Besides, Robert went steady with Jessica Burns anyways. Every time, I was away. I never said a word. That morning was supposed to be my turn.”
“And was it your turn?” Bernard shifted his white choking collar, loosened it a little, then just took it off. The only nice thing about the confessional box, he didn’t always wear the full garb. Sometimes, he sounded more like a therapist than a priest. If given the chance, he would switch professions. His direct God connection burned out years ago.
“Why else would I tell Robert to go by himself?” She brushed away a few tears and hugged the bottle tighter. “But Thomas never showed up. Typical.”
Bernard sighed relieved that he wouldn’t be listening to a litany of carnal sins. He grew tired of listening to men confess their affairs, women their lovers in such detail that he swore they climaxed again after the retelling. Another unfair blow by the church. He listened but couldn’t partake.
“The accident took away any hope I had for Thomas,” she said. “Took away Robert too.”
“How long before Robert passed?” Bernard asked as he put his hands on top of her again. She gripped his fingers and squeezed. They sat holding hands in silence for several minutes. By now, she missed her flight to Brazil and Bernard his flight to Detroit. Somehow, neither one of them minded.
“A couple of weeks. I left him with the hospice nurse to go to the grocery store. That bitch walked out after I left and Robert strangled himself.” Hilda couldn’t finish. Her words interrupted by choking gasps and tears and sobs.
“I shall pray for his soul,” he said and whispered some jumbled version of the Purgatory prayers.
“Guess you never get a day off in your line of work?” She asked once she stopped crying.
“Not usually. But it’s time for a career change,” he said still holding her hands.
“You mean God let’s you just quit?” The question hung suspended between them as if they hoped God would write on walls again.
“Suppose so.” He stood up offered her his hand, and they walked toward the ticket counter. Two tickets for Vegas.