Excerpt from Another Sunday

Six

 

Willie reviewed his “needs to be done” list as he looked at his reflection on the morning of Christmas Eve. This time tomorrow I will be a husband. I will be an adult. I will be respected, he thought.

 He had made reservations at the Stafford Hotel. He had talked to Charles Steiff, an old schoolmate whose father owned a jewelry business. Steiff had suggested the wide gold band. It would be ready and was waiting for them.

Since he lived on the north side of North Avenue, he knew that they would have to journey to Towson for their marriage license. He had hired a carriage to take them on this Christmas Eve adventure. The Episcopal Church was close enough that they could walk from the Courthouse. The driver would wait for them, and then take them back home. Only it wouldn’t be home anymore, he thought. We are starting our new life. This will show Vati. This will show Vati that I am a man, a proper man, a proper husband.

Willie stared at his reflection: shoes polished, suspenders snapped, vest buttoned, shirt and collar perfect, hair oiled and combed. He was satisfied that he looked like a proper husband. He headed down the steps. He wanted to be outside waiting when the carriage arrived.

 Clara, wearing the red bathrobe with white piping she had since her high school days, met him at the landing. Her brown hair was still swathed in the paper wrappers she slept in to give it a bit of wave.

  “And just what is that outside? Where are you going?”

Willie eased into his black overcoat, cashmere, and adjusted his maroon neck scarf. “I’m taking Celeste downtown to look at the store windows, and then we’re having a holiday lunch at Marconi’s. Does that meet with your approval?” Both he and Clara were surprised at the secure and sarcastic tone in his response. As he pulled on his grey gloves he thought, maybe I am a proper man.

 “You are asking for trouble, Willie. I beg you to stop this nonsense. Where did you get the money for the carriage? Such an extravagance. You better hope that Vati doesn’t find out. When will you be back? You know that tonight’s dinner is special, and then we go to midnight mass. Don’t you dare miss this.

“Such nonsense. She is a child, Willie. And you’re not much better.” Clara turned on her heel and marched to the back of the house, black silk skirt swaying, her limp imperceptible. Willie strode out the front door and down the steps.


 The driver jumped from his perch to open the carriage door. As Willie entered, he said, “Our first stop is just across the street. And we have you for the whole day, correct?”

 Seven

Celeste stood at the front window, nervously hopping from one foot to the other. She saw the carriage stop, and as Willie stepped onto the sidewalk, she ran to the door to greet him.  Even in his nervousness, Willie inhaled sharply when he saw her. She stood in the doorway, wearing a high-necked, long-sleeved lace blouse, the color of soft candlelight. She was taller than most girls, so the black, red and green tartan taffeta skirt, bought for holiday parties the year before, allowed a glimpse of her ankles as she ran to him. Low-cut black patent-leather French-heeled shoes shone on her narrow feet, and black stockings, the sheerest she could find, filched from Eva’s bureau, completed her outfit. Her hair hung loose in the back, tied with a black velvet ribbon, wider than the ones she normally wore.

Though the wind was biting, she thought her maroon wool coat not nearly festive enough for the occasion. She wore a waist-length jacket, black velvet, also Eva’s. It fitted tightly, her bosom always fuller than her older sister’s. She added a small chinchilla muff, a February gift from her parents for her 16th birthday.

Annie followed Celeste to the door. Willie greeted the Celeste’s mother and wished her a Merry Christmas. Celeste and Willie had agreed upon the story they would tell their parents.  Celeste said that they would be back by dinnertime.

She skipped down the steps toward the waiting carriage and started to clamber in. Remembering her dignity, she stopped and waited for the driver to help her. Willie slid in beside her. She waited to be kissed. He took her hand and drew it to his lips.

She turned to face him. “This is the happiest day of my life, Willie. Really.” And she leaned against him. He put his arm around her and whispered, “We have a stop to make.”

Celeste’s heart lurched. “Where are we going?” The carriage turned south from North Avenue, not the route to Towson. Celeste swallowed and looked straight ahead. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“Not to worry,” Willie said. “This is a good surprise.” She settled back into the seat, but her breathing remained shallow. She watched streets pass, trying to trust Willie. The horse trotted down Charles Street, passing the commanding Belvedere Hotel on the left. When the carriage entered Mt. Vernon Place, Willie pointed out the Stafford Hotel, newly opened and majestic with its brown Roman brick. The horse kept a lively gait, the streets almost empty this Christmas Eve morning.

As they approached Saratoga Street, Celeste saw The Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to her left. Maybe we will be married there, she thought. But the carriage veered to the west and Old St. Paul’s was left in the background. Celeste tugged at her gloves, pulled the handkerchief from the pocket inside her muff.

The carriage stopped in front of a small shop on Liberty Street, The Baltimore Sterling Silver Company.  Willie turned to her, “You have to have a wedding ring. I called ahead. They know we need it right away. All you have to do is make sure that it’s the right size.”

  “Oh, Willie, I knew you’d take care of me.” Celeste threw her arms around him. Willie blushed, afraid that the driver could see them, fearful of what he might assume of Celeste’s character and reputation. Extricating himself from her clasp, Willie patted her hand, and hopped from his side to open the carriage door for her. He told the driver that they’d be just be a few minutes.  Celeste giggled as she stepped from the carriage. Willie looked long at her ankle clad in the black stocking as her skirt caught briefly on the door handle.

Celeste took his hand and skipped into the store; he followed sedately behind her, slowing her pace. She is a child, he thought. But I will do the right thing. Everything will be fine. Yes, everything will be fine.

The ring was perfect, she said, as they continued their journey north to the Towson courthouse to apply for their marriage license. When they arrived, Willie told the carriage driver where to meet them, telling him to be there at two p.m.

Celeste clasped Willie’s hand as they mounted the stairs of the four-story granite building. Within minutes, the clerk had transcribed the particulars in an elegant script, holding the long, thin, wooden pen in his ink-stained fingers, dipping it into the black inkwell, twice for each line.

Celeste lied about her age. “I am eighteen,” she said in response to his question. “Nineteen in February.”

Willie gave his age as twenty-three. He was the man, who would, and did, take care of things

Celeste kissed Willie when he took the document from the clerk. Willie blushed and immediately felt his erection. He blushed even more and turned away. Celeste had no idea why.

Trinity Episcopal Church was three blocks from the courthouse, on Allegheny Avenue. Willie had located it as part of his planning for the day and had talked to the priest there about their situation. He was surprised at the cleric’s kind response, so different from the stern Catholic priests of his childhood.

The couple walked sedately, Celeste practicing what she considered to be the gait of a married woman. Willie’s overcoat hung open. He didn’t notice the cold.

Nearing the church, the couple saw finely outfitted ladies, members of the Episcopal Church Women, bustling in and out carrying white poinsettias. Entering the narthex Celeste noticed the white flowers tightly enclosing the altar, only a narrow aisle for the priests to navigate left open.

The women glanced at the young couple, saw their tentative steps. One kind soul asked if they needed help. She didn’t recognize them, but they looked like Episcopalians to her.

“We’re looking for Father Powers.” Willie worked hard to make his voice strong.

“I’m sure that The Reverend is in the rectory,” the woman said, shifting a top-heavy poinsettia to her right hand. With her left, she pointed to the grey granite house next to the church. An unadorned green wreath hung on its front door. “Most likely he’s preparing for tonight’s services.”  She paused.  “Is he expecting you?”

  Celeste jumped in. “Oh, yes. He’s going to marry us.” She looked down to adjust the pearl buttons on the ivory kid gloves she had quietly lifted from her mother’s glove drawer.

The woman purposefully kept her smile, a welcoming one, she hoped. She wondered about the family of this finely-outfitted, refined-looking couple. No proper wedding? Something afoot, if not amiss, she thought, and was grateful that she, and not some of the other ECW members, had been the one to approach them. She watched them, a sweet, young couple, the groom serious beyond his years, the bride an innocent child.

Celeste glowed. Christmas Eve, she thought, and I will be married. Willie was silent. Celeste didn’t notice.

“Would you be our witness?” Celeste asked. The woman looked startled, as did Willie.

Smiling, the woman replied, “I would be delighted. Let me get some flowers for you to carry.” She turned back to the church.

The couple walked to the rectory door, Celeste carrying a bouquet of greenery with two white poinsettia blooms in the center. The woman had wrapped it in a starched white linen communion veil that she took from the drawer containing the fair linens. No better use for it, she thought, though she made sure that none of the others saw her remove it.

Willie rang the bell. As they waited, he felt in his pocket for the ring.