NOVEMBER 30—FEAST OF ST. ANDREW
It was Friday afternoon. Everything about Sister Mary Helen felt like a Friday afternoon. She checked the large wall clock. It groaned a low electric groan, then the big black hand jerked downward to four-thirty. Four-thirty, at last! Long winter shadows dimmed her small inner office. Slowly, the old nun pushed away from her desk. Stretching, she stared out the narrow window.
An early dusk darkened the gray sky. The rasp of the foghorns warned her that a low fog was already billowing in through the Golden Gate. Soon it would blot out the Presidio, then roll up the hill and shroud Mount St. Francis College for Women. Her mind’s eye could see the gray blanket closing over Anza Street. Ugh!
Turning back to her desk, Mary Helen began to straighten up the papers scattered across its glass-covered top. She blew away a pile of eraser crumbs. Whoever did away with the old rolltops should be shot, she fumed, rearranging the piles.
Methodically, she flipped the calendar over to December. Adjusting her bifocals, she frowned. It didn’t seem possible. Sunday would be December 2, the first Sunday of Advent. She had been in the alumnae office for over a year and the year before that was when she had been sent to the college to retire. Mary Helen smiled. Retire indeed! Where had the two years gone? she wondered. “Time is flying, never to return,” good old Virgil had observed fifty years before Christ. In Latin, of course, Mary Helen presumed, but his observation was certainly just as true in any language.
“What are you doing tonight, Sister?” Suzanne Barnes’s low voice startled her. The young woman was hanging about just inside the doorway. Her straight black hair fell in limp clumps over her narrow shoulders. A bit of color flushed her plain flat face.
“Nothing much. Why?” Mary Helen perked up, hoping she didn’t sound too tired. If Suzanne had a suggestion for the evening, she hated to squelch it. Poor girl seemed to have so few. And, to Mary Helen’s way of thinking, there was no reason for it. Suzanne was bright and efficient, and there was something so good about her, you couldn’t help but love her.
“Did you have something in mind?” Mary Helen coaxed. She still felt a little guilty about cutting the girl off earlier in the week.
“Are you happy in the convent?” Suzanne had asked her out of the blue.
The question had annoyed Mary Helen. “Would I have stayed fifty odd years if I were unhappy?” is what she wanted to say. Instead, she had mouthed some platitude.
Suzanne had hesitated a moment, as if she were going to confide something. Then she turned without a word and left Mary Helen wondering what it was all about. Maybe this was what she had been leading up to.
“If you’re not busy, maybe you’d like to go with me to the Sea Wench.” Suzanne dropped her voice to a whisper.
Shoving her glasses up the bridge of her nose, Mary Helen studied the young woman’s face. Suzanne’s watery blue eyes sparkled. At least Mary Helen imagined she caught a sparkle before the lids closed over them and Suzanne looked away.
“I’ll pick you up about seven,” Suzanne said, then added nervously, “If you’d like, you can bring a couple of the other nuns. Tonight’s my first night. I’ll be singing.” With a quick, frightened pull, she closed the glass door of the inner office behind her, leaving Mary Helen gaping.
“Well, I’ll be switched,” she muttered aloud, listening to Suzanne’s quick footsteps leave the outer office, then scurry down the stone corridor. Imagine thin, shy little Suzanne singing! It all goes to prove you just never can tell the book by its cover. And if anyone should know that, old girl, you should, Mary Helen reminded herself. Why, for years you’ve been camouflaging the most spine-tingling mystery stories in your pious plastic prayer book cover.
Chuckling, Mary Helen flipped off the light and left the alumnae office. Gingerly she pattered down the darkening hall toward Sister Anne’s campus ministry office. The whole basement floor of the college was deserted. Nothing like a Friday afternoon to clear the entire area. She neared Anne’s door. The sweet smell of sandalwood incense permeating the corridor told her that the young nun was still there.
“Come in,” a soft voice answered her rap. Cautiously, Mary Helen pushed open the wooden door. She was not surprised to see Sister Anne, eyes closed, pretzeled into her lotus position. A thin curl of smoke from the incense pot circled the young nun’s black curly head. A small green yoga pillow jutted out from below her faded blue jeans.
Anne opened one eye. “Hi,” she said. “Just relaxing. It’s been some week.” She sighed. “What’s up?”
“What’s the Sea Wench and do you want to go?” Mary Helen wasted no time on preliminaries.
Anne’s hazel eyes shot open. They looked very wide behind her purple-framed glasses. “It’s a bar in Ghirardelli Square,” she said, “and the question, more importantly, I think, is, Do you want to go?”
Again Mary Helen shoved her bifocals up the bridge of her nose. “A bar?” she asked, trying not to sound too surprised. “Why, Suzanne told me she was singing there tonight.”
Anne closed her eyes again, dropped her head forward, and slowly began to roll it counterclockwise. “She probably has a job waiting tables,” Anne explained. “All the waiters and waitresses sing there. Part of the charm of the place.”
“Yep.” Anne did not explain. She just continued to circle her head.
Mary Helen chose to let sleeping dogs lie.
“Still want to go?” Anne asked.
Want to go? She was dead set to go and get a glimpse of Suzanne’s other side. At my age, I should be a little prudent and circumspect, she reminded herself. On the other hand, what’s the advantage of being my age if you can’t throw a little caution to the wind?
“Yep,” she answered, pulling Anne’s door closed. “Meet you at the front door of the convent at seven.”
“Okay.” She heard Anne’s muffled voice call through the wooden door.
Deliberately, Mary Helen set out to find her old friend Sister Eileen. By now, Eileen should just about be closing up the Hanna Memorial Library. Even the most diligent scholars usually didn’t stay in the library past five on a Friday night. Mary Helen trudged up the stairs from the basement floor where she and Anne shared office space with the athletic department, the communication center, the development office, and all the other departments that came into vogue after the massive stone college had been built in the early thirties. The offices were renovated basement storage space, but like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, no amount of interior decorating had been able to hide the fact that they were still in the basement. The concrete staircase leading to the ground floor was narrow and dark. Someone had hung a tapestry on the wall to add a touch of class, Mary Helen supposed. Unfortunately, in her opinion, the dark heavy cloth had merely added a touch of bleakness to the musty stairwell.
A loud moan from the foghorns echoed through the deserted stone building. Pulling open the door to the first floor, Mary Helen marveled at how a place could be so alive and vibrant one moment and so dead and dismal the next.
A web of shadows had begun to knit across the arched ceiling of the long parquet hallway. Standing in the deserted hall, she couldn’t help thinking of Thomas Moore. “I feel like one Who treads alone some banquet hall deserted, Whose lights are fled, Whose garlands dead, And all but he departed,” the old bard had said. She knew his meaning was far more profound, but this afternoon, standing here, she had never understood his simile better. Mary Helen was glad to spot Eileen at the far end, looking for all the world like a plump ball of navy blue, fumbling with a heavy ring of keys. She watched her friend bend forward, insert one of the keys into the lock, then give it a firm twist. Finally, Eileen tugged at the beveled glass door. All was secure.
“Yoo-whoo.” Mary Helen’s voice rang down the corridor.
Eileen whirled around. An easy smile lit her round wrinkled face. “I was just about to go looking for you,” she said with just a slight lilt of a brogue. “How about a nice walk before supper?” She moved quickly down the hall toward her friend. Eileen must have had a bad week, too, Mary Helen reckoned, since walking was one of her favorite panaceas. Cleaning was the other. Mary Helen was glad she’d chosen walking.
“I’ve a better idea,” she said, relieved at how easily the subject was going to be introduced. “How about going to the Sea Wench with Anne and me tonight?”
Eileen’s bushy gray eyebrows arched. “The Sea Wench?” she asked incredulously. “Glory be to God, why?”
Maybe it wasn’t going to be so easy. Eileen obviously knew what the Sea Wench was. “Because Suzanne is going to sing there tonight and I’d like to support her,” Mary Helen said. Support was one of the “now” words Anne always used. It seemed to fit in perfectly.
“Our Suzanne? Singing?” This time Eileen’s voice really registered surprise.
“It does seem a bit out of character,” Mary Helen agreed. The two old nuns ducked out a side entrance of the empty college building and made their way across the campus. The wet fog had all but swallowed the hill.
Eileen lifted the collar of her navy blue Aran sweater to cover her ears. Wishing she had worn hers, Mary Helen shivered and pulled her blue wool jacket tightly around her. Someone had told her a suit jacket always looked professional.
Who cares how professional you look if you’re frozen to death? she wondered, starting down the curved driveway toward the convent, which she could never get used to calling the Sisters’ Residence. Although it was only a little before five o’clock, slits of light shone from many of the small windows in the stone building.
“You know, Mary Helen.” Eileen’s words came out in little white clouds of breath. “One could expect to find Suzanne singing in a church choir someplace, but a public bar?” Wide-eyed, Eileen stared at Mary Helen.
“Did you even know she could sing?”
“No. I’ve told you before, I never even met the girl until you hired her. You do remember that?”
Mary Helen remembered it, much as she hated to admit it. The incident was one she would never forget.
It had happened shortly after she had helped Inspector Kate Murphy solve the Homicide on Holy Hill murder case. Sister Rose, the Superior of her order, had called for an appointment.
“Mary Helen,” the Superior had begun kindly but firmly, “when I sent you here a year ago to retire and do a little research, I had no idea it would lead to finding half a dozen bodies.”
Fair enough, Mary Helen had conceded. Who could have foreseen the murder of the head of Mount St. Francis’s history department or exactly where the investigation would lead?
“Maybe the history department was a poor choice on my part.” Mary Helen did not disagree. Let her squirm a bit; however, she knew squirming was not what Sister Rose did best. She waited silently for the other shoe to drop.
“And since you’ve become somewhat famous in The City …”
Mary Helen was glad she hadn’t used the word notorious, although the Chronicle had hinted at that when they reported her part in solving the case.
“And since you are acquainted with at least one alumna …”
Here comes the bottom line. Mary Helen braced herself.
“Kate Murphy. And a very prominent alum at that. Why, the council and I thought it would be a wonderful thing if you would consent to be the alumnae moderator for Mount St. Francis.”
“You do realize I’m not an alumna?” Mary Helen had asked, knowing full well the Superior did.
“Yes, of course.”
“Nor have I ever taught here.”
“I realize that too.”
“Those are disadvantages, you know,” she had said.
Sister Rose smiled. “But you have a special knack for turning disadvantages into advantages,” she said, then launched into the hackneyed proverb about “keeping your eye upon the doughnut and not upon the hole.”
Spare me, O Lord, Mary Helen thought, opening her mouth to comment.
“Besides,” the Superior rushed on before the old nun had a chance, “the alumnae moderator just quit to get married and Sister Cecilia is desperate.” Mary Helen had noticed Cecilia at the breakfast table that very morning. The woman did look haggard, but Mary Helen figured Cecilia was the college president and it did tend to get very lonely at the top. “Please, Mary Helen.” Sister Rose was nearly pleading.
“As long as you put it that way, Sister,” Mary Helen had said, “I’ll give it a whirl.”
What the Superior had neglected to mention was that not only had the alumnae moderator resigned but so had the entire staff, which consisted of one secretary. It had taken Mary Helen less than half a day in her new job to realize that a secretary was essential.
She smiled now, remembering how desperate she had been a year ago when she’d suddenly thought of Eileen. If anyone will know where I can enlist an alum to be my secretary, good old Eileen will. Eileen had been at the college for as long as anyone could remember. Anyone, that is, except Mary Helen. Her memory of Eileen went way back. The two had been in the novitiate together. That was where they had become such fast friends and pinochle partners. Mary Helen rarely brought it up, however, since neither of them wanted to admit it was over fifty years ago. Well, you are, after all, only as old as you feel, she had reasoned, rushing down the corridor toward the Hanna Memorial. She met Eileen coming the other way with a thin, black-haired young woman in tow.
“Eileen,” she had blurted out, completely ignoring the young woman. “I’m desperate for a secretary. Do you know of any alum that might want the job?”
“Isn’t this a coincidence.” Eileen smiled warmly toward the silent young woman on her left. “Why, Suzanne Barnes here was just inquiring about a position in the library, but we have a full staff.”
Quickly Mary Helen had scrutinized the young woman. Plain but pleasant-looking. About thirty, she calculated. Good, we won’t have a flock of boys from the University of San Francisco hanging around the office. Shoulders dropped a bit, probably shy. Mary Helen had studied her eyes. After fifty years of classroom teaching, she considered herself an expert on eyes. The girl’s were pale blue and timid, but clear and candid nonetheless, with a certain depth, a little toughness. Good. Probably the type of woman that wears well. I’ll take her, Mary Helen thought.
“Coincidence, nothing, it’s an act of God,” she had said aloud, whisking the startled Suzanne downstairs to her cramped office. She noticed Eileen sputtering and she had wondered why. Halfway through the interview she knew.
“Why didn’t you tell me you just met the girl?” she had asked Eileen when she arrived in the Sisters’ dining room for lunch.
“For the love of all that’s good and holy, who had the chance?” Eileen’s gray eyes snapped.
“And that she wasn’t even an alumna?”
Eileen set her lips tight and completely ignored the second question. “You do remember saying the whole meeting was an act of God?” she asked instead.
Mary Helen remembered, of course, although she was reluctant to admit it. “Well, I hope it doesn’t turn out to be an act of stupidity,” she muttered.
Eileen had had the decency to take another bite of her tuna salad and for a few moments say nothing. “We’ve an old saying at home, you know, and I think a very true one,” she had said finally. “It is an ill wind turns none to good.” Quickly, she took another bite of tuna fish.
Mary Helen had stared at her friend in amazement. Eileen had an old saying from home to fit every occasion, though she’d left Ireland over fifty years ago. Sometimes Mary Helen suspected she made them up just to fit the circumstances.
All that had happened over a year ago now, and Mary Helen had to admit that Suzanne had worked out well. Very well indeed. In fact, Mary Helen had come to rely on the young woman.
Suzanne was the perfect secretary: efficient, reliable, eager to please. But, something about Suzanne worried Mary Helen. The girl was a little too eager to please. She wished Suzanne could relax, lose a bit of her uneasiness. Mary Helen had tried everything she could think of. Once she even started calling her “Suzie” to see if that would loosen her up, but it didn’t seem to fit. Somehow, Suzanne was just not the nickname type.
Hard as she tried, Mary Helen could never quite make Suzanne—what did Sister Anne call it?—“hang loose.” And what’s more, she could never really tell exactly what was going on behind those watery blue eyes.
If she were perfectly honest with herself, Mary Helen would have to admit that was what bothered her the most about Suzanne. She could not figure the girl out.
Once, right after she hired her, Mary Helen had thought that Suzanne was on the verge of telling her a bit about herself. Maybe she had been too eager to listen, a little too attentive. Whatever, Suzanne had stopped abruptly, almost midsentence, coughed convincingly, and left the room to get some water. Mary Helen had attributed it to shyness. Lately she was beginning to wonder if maybe Suzanne wasn’t so much timid as she was just plain guarded. A guarded person. That might be the perfect description of her. And what, she wondered, was Suzanne guarding?
“She never talks about her family or where she’s from,” Mary Helen had confided to Eileen several weeks before.
Eileen shrugged. “Well, old dear, do you?” she asked.
“Well, no,” Mary Helen had had to admit, “but she’s young. She never even mentions what she does on the weekends. And if she gets a personal call in the office, which is seldom, she answers in monosyllables.”
“I would, too, if I thought you were listening.”
Mary Helen did not dignify that remark with a reply. She just played her trump card. “And she has a nun’s watch,” she said, shoving her glasses up the bridge of her nose and staring smugly at her friend.
“A nun’s watch! How in the name of God do you know it’s a nun’s watch?”
“I can just tell. It has that large round face, a second hand. It’s plain, almost masculine. Bought strictly for use, not for style.”
“And don’t all the nurses wear the same kind?”
“Yes, but why would a nurse take a secretary’s job at the salary we pay when she could get a good position right down the street at St. Mary’s Hospital?”
“So, are you telling me you think she’s a nun in disguise?”
“No, an ex.”
“I’d say you had better stop reading those mystery books,” Eileen had said, shaking her head. Deliberately she pointed to her temple. “If you ask me, old dear, you’re getting a bit soft up here. The poor girl minds her own business. She won’t let you pry into her private life, for which I don’t blame her, and she wears a plain watch and straightaway you have her an ex-nun.”
“Not right away,” Mary Helen had said, hoping she didn’t sound too defensive. There were several other “nunny” things she’d noticed about Suzanne during the year. Not the kinds of things you could put your finger on and say, “See,” but the kinds of things you just feel; a certain innocence and a kind of “otherworldliness” that novitiates inspire.
Well, at least after tonight she’d know a little bit more about the private life of her secretary. Maybe find out if her suspicions were correct. Mary Helen could hardly wait.
Right after dinner, Sister Mary Helen rushed to the convent building, then up to her second-floor bedroom. Tonight’s spaghetti coupled with the sourdough French bread had made one large starchy lump in her stomach.
“Why do we always have spaghetti on Friday night?” she had asked Eileen while they were still at the dinner table.
“My guess would be to use up the end-of-the-week leftovers?” Mary Helen wasn’t sure if that was a statement of fact or a question. Eileen had never quite lost that Irish way of making a statement sound like a question. Over the years, the habit had probably saved her many an argument.
“End-of-the-week leftovers? What did they do around here before we could eat meat on Friday?”
“If I remember correctly, we always had spaghetti on Thursdays.” Eileen had let a shower of golden crumbs fall around her plate.
Popping a Rolaid into her mouth, Mary Helen scanned her small closet, looking for an appropriate Sea Wench outfit. Unable to decide exactly what one wears to a singing bar, she closed the closet door and eyed herself in the mirror.
The navy blue suit I have on looks just fine, she thought, spitting on her thumb, then rubbing a small spot off the sleeve of her jacket. She smoothed the back of her straight skirt, assuring herself that the sitting lines wouldn’t even show if the place was at all dim. She did decide to change from her white tailored blouse into the powder blue one with a bit of lace around the collar. More festive!
When she put the jacket back on, she studied the narrow silver cross on the lapel. Should she leave it on or take it off? Off, she looked like a conservative tourist. On, she looked like a “with it” old nun. She decided, without a moment’s hesitation, to leave it on.
Quickly she snatched her latest mystery from her night-stand. Shoving it into her faithful plastic prayer book cover, she dropped the paperback into her pocketbook and clutched the handles. Mary Helen had tried an over-the-shoulder bag, but she could never manage to keep the blasted thing on, much less over, her shoulder. She patted the rectangular bulge the paperback made, and smiled. Some women never went anywhere without their gloves. She never went anywhere without her book.
Although some considered it a fetish, she considered it an extremely constructive habit. Not only had this practice enabled her to devour hundreds of mysteries, it had saved her untold hours of impatience. In fact, it was getting so she actually enjoyed waiting in doctors’ offices, dentists’ offices, airports, for repairmen—all those places and times people are forced to wait.
Grabbing her heavy coat, Mary Helen hurried down to the front parlor. She was the first to arrive. She checked her watch. Fifteen minutes early. She was delighted. Sinking into an overstuffed chair, she opened her book, flipped back the ribbon marker, and began to read.
This Advent she had decided on a very painful sacrifice. She was going to give up mysteries for the duration. She had resolved to do some spiritual reading instead. Therefore, she was determined—hell-bent might have been a more accurate term—to finish this one before Sunday.
Mary Helen was just settling into the last half of a chapter when the front door of the convent burst open. Sister Therese bustled in, muttering under her breath.
Nervously Therese threw the double bolt across the door. Yanking against the handle, she made sure it was securely locked, then muttered some more. Since the murders had taken place on the hill, Therese had become the self-appointed doorkeeper. If Michael the Archangel had enlisted Therese in his army, Mary Helen often thought, his troubles would have been minimal. She could see Raphael’s painting: Michael vanquishing Lucifer with Therese leering over his shoulder, muttering and checking the Pearly Gates. Another rattle from the doorway brought her back to reality.
“Don’t bother, Therese,” Mary Helen called from the parlor. “I’m going out.”
Therese jumped and gasped.
“You scared the very heart out of me,” she said, laying her arthritic hand against her collarbone. “What on earth are you doing sitting all alone in the parlor?” Therese rolled her eyes toward Mary Helen.
Without waiting for an answer, her high-pitched voice tumbled on. “Praying, I see. And well you might. Anyone your age going out in San Francisco on a Friday night should be praying.” This time Therese rolled her dark eyes heavenward.
Mary Helen bristled, yet she held her peace. She didn’t feel even a twinge of guilt about letting Therese think she was praying.
“I just let her think it,” Mary Helen had told Eileen the first time Therese had misinterpreted the plastic cover. “She’s really much happier that way.” And so am I, she added, but only to herself.
“That’s a very lame excuse,” Eileen had said, but it was all the excuse Mary Helen needed.
“I don’t know what The City is coming to.” Therese had barely stopped for breath. “A body isn’t safe anyplace anymore. As well you know!” she said, rolling her eyes back toward Mary Helen. Mary Helen could feel her blood pressure start to rise. Gratefully, she heard Anne and Eileen hurrying down the hallway toward the parlor.
“Why, I just read about a seventy-year-old woman right down here on Clement Street …”
The soft chimes of the front doorbell interrupted Therese.
Saved by the bell! Mary Helen pushed herself up from the parlor chair, opened the heavy door, and smiled out at Suzanne. Suzanne was radiant, or at least as radiant as Suzanne could be. Her cheeks were flushed and that little bit of color brought out the clear blue of her eyes. The front locks of her long dark hair had been swept upward. The height made her plain flat face look longer. Someone had arranged a topknot of blue silk flowers that matched her eyes perfectly.
“You look lovely,” Mary Helen said.
“Thank you.” Suzanne blushed. Then, like a flasher, she threw open her long tan trench coat to reveal her costume.
The black velvet bodice fit tightly and was cut low. A narrow crimson lace trim did little to cover her ample bosom. She looked for all the world like a wench right out of an eighteenth-century English pub, except that the red crinoline skirt stopped abruptly just below a pair of black velvet panties. Her long legs were covered with spiderweb black stockings. Not even her black shoes were sensible. The heels were much too high.
“How do you like it?” Suzanne asked.
“Amazing” was the only word Mary Helen could think of to say.
“Why, Suzanne, dear, you look so—so—sophisticated.” Eileen had saved the day. “And I just love your hair that way. It is ever so becoming.” Mary Helen smiled, relieved. Good old Eileen! You could always count on her for chitchat.
“My friend Mimi fixed it. She lives in my apartment building.” Suzanne steered the trio down the convent steps toward her car.
Imagine Suzanne having a friend called “Mimi”!
“And speaking of Mimi,” the young woman continued, “she’ll be there tonight and I’ve asked her to take you home after the first show. I don’t get off until after two and I was sure you wouldn’t want to stay that long.” Her voice trailed off.
By two A.M. I’d be snoring out loud, Mary Helen wanted to remark, but she simply smiled and climbed into the backseat of Suzanne’s car. The car was a faded blue, flat-looking Buick, probably a ’69. The fenders and heavy doors bore several battle scars. Driving in Suzanne’s car always made Mary Helen feel like a low-rider. All it needed was a pair of angora dice hanging from the rearview mirror.
Yet the old Buick managed to get you where you were going. Somehow, to Mary Helen, the old car matched Suzanne perfectly. Worn, yet eager to please, efficient, and, above all, reliable.
Leaving the college, they turned right on Turk, right again on Parker, and finally right onto Geary. The boulevard was ablaze with lights. Already groups of people, huddling together to ward off the cold, had begun to queue up in front of the small restaurants lining both sides of the street.
Mary Helen marveled that one could choose to eat the food of Mexico or Morocco, France or China, Thailand or Pakistan by simply crossing Geary Street.
“It seems like the middle of the night,” Anne remarked when they emerged from the Masonic Street tunnel. She pointed to the brightly lit buildings of downtown that lay before them.
“It’s just after seven,” Suzanne assured her, stopping for a red light in front of St. Mary’s Cathedral. All the lights of the huge concrete structure were on, illuminating the brilliant stained glass in the spire.
When the cathedral was first built, some wag had called it St. Mary Maytag. Studying its gyrator-shaped dome, Mary Helen could understand why.
Suzanne’s Buick wiggled around Starr King Way and on to Franklin Street. Here and there, Christmas lights shone from windows in the apartment buildings lining the hilly street. As they rode along, Mary Helen admired the stately Victorians sandwiched in between the tall buildings.
“One of these days we must take that tour.” Eileen nudged her as they drove past the gray and white Haas-Lilienthal mansion. The old Queen Anne Victorian was set back on a small patch of perfectly manicured lawn.
Franklin Street dead-ended at Fort Mason. With a few clever turns Suzanne was fortunate enough to find a parking place on Van Ness right across from Aquatic Park, a short walk from Ghirardelli.
“You’ve brought me luck so far,” Suzanne remarked as she curbed the Buick’s wide wheels. “Hope it lasts.”
“I’m sure you’ll do just beautifully,” Eileen gushed, “and we must be sure to make a special wish. This is the first time you and I have been to the Sea Wench.” She smiled over at Mary Helen, who tried not to look too amazed.
“I thought you were entitled to a special wish the first time you visited a church!” Anne took the words right out of Mary Helen’s mouth.
“That’s three wishes for a church,” Eileen corrected. “So I would suspect that at a bar we should get one,” she explained with a bit of logic that eluded everyone.
Still shaking her head, Mary Helen stepped out of the Buick and carefully checked her door handle to make sure it was locked. She pulled in a deep breath. The sharp crisp prickle of salt air stung her face and made her eyes water.
Halos of fog formed around the old-fashioned streetlights lining the lip of the bay that curved into the shoreline. Below her she could hear the surf lapping against the narrow beach of hard sand.
In the distance the beacon from an invisible lighthouse shot across the sky.
The four women started along the footpath toward the Maritime Museum. Atop it, the flags waved in the floodlights. Across the street, the large Ghirardelli sign and the famous clock tower were sparkling with tiny golden lights. The dense fog swirling in from the Golden Gate could not dim the arcade shops, brightly decorated for Christmas.
Holding tightly to the banister, Mary Helen made her way carefully up the brick stairs to the courtyard. She paused for breath by the large water fountain. Even the brass mermaids in the bubbling fountain looked chilly. Tiny white lights strung through willowy trees and over banisters gave the courtyard a fairyland appearance.
Mary Helen stopped for a moment to admire the Kite Shop, Corn Poppers, Inc., and the Fine Crystal Shop. Whoever had refurbished the old brick candy factory had done a lovely job, she thought, cautiously ascending the wide, moisture-laden steps to the second floor of the Chocolate Building.
Suzanne stopped in front of a thick wooden door with an ornate brass handle. “This is it,” she said, motioning toward the door. “Mimi will meet you inside. I go around to the back.” With that she hurried down the walkway and turned a corner.
The three nuns stood for a moment in the foyer, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dark. “How will we know Mimi?” Mary Helen asked. The question was needless.
“Hi, I’m Mimi,” a pert little voice piped in the dark. They turned to find a petite young woman holding three menus. Mimi was dressed much the same as Suzanne—tight bodice, minimal lace covering very little of her small but full bosom. Her costume, however, had puffy sleeves and a long, straight crimson satin skirt. To Mary Helen the girl looked for all the world like a small blond Snow White.
Apparently Mimi was the hostess. Her short curls bouncing, she threaded her way among the round wooden tables and led the nuns to a small table in the corner. Smiling, she plunked down the menus.
“I’m so glad to meet you.” Her pug nose crinkled. “Suzanne has talked so much about you.”
Mary Helen looked up, unable to believe that Suzanne talked much about anything. Her eyes met Mimi’s. Maybe it was the flickering candle on the table. She blinked and looked again. She tried not to stare. Sure enough, Mimi had one brown eye and one blue one.
The girl pushed her short bangs aside, leaned over the table, and whispered, “Order anything you like. Drinks are on the house. My shift is over at ten. I’ll take you home.”
A tall, hairy-looking man planted a sound slap on Mimi’s small firm bottom. Quickly she straightened up. “Come on, babe,” he growled without even looking at her. “Shake it! You got customers.” The man moved away toward the back of the room.
Mimi winked her brown eye. “Mr. Rosenberg, the boss,” she whispered. “Enjoy!” she said aloud, moving back toward the front door.
Before any of them could comment, a tall, thin waitress appeared to take their orders. Mary Helen studied the menu. Blackbeard’s Revenge and A Long John Silver left her cold. Impatiently the waitress tapped her pencil on her pad. “Beer,” Mary Helen ordered. “To settle my stomach,” she added, feeling she had to justify her choice. The waitress glanced up, but said nothing. Both Eileen and Anne ordered white wine. How sensible and ladylike! Mary Helen wished she had waited. Oh, well, Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, she conceded, and there is no fool like an … Before she could finish her thought, the house lights dimmed, although she wouldn’t have thought that possible. Several baby spotlights illuminated a small patch of raised wooden floor that served as a stage.
A group of bright young waiters and waitresses began a medley of Broadway hits. Mary Helen glanced over at her companions. Both Eileen and Anne seemed absorbed in the show. And from the expressions on their faces, both seemed to be enjoying it.
Mary Helen took a sip of ice-cold beer and gazed around the Sea Wench. The room was nautical to the nines. A fierce-looking figurehead of a noble maiden complete with large nose and lace ruff loomed over the bar. Three-cornered pirate hats hung on weathered brown walls above crossed swords and mysterious maps. Here and there, the carved faces of one-eyed buccaneers leered down at the customers. Open treasure chests bulged with goodies. Mary Helen would have fully expected to pay in pieces of eight had not the tote bags, cameras, and walking shoes given away the fact that the Sea Wench was full of tourists. An occasional distinguished-looking older man held hands with a svelte, glamorously dressed younger woman. Businessmen and their secretaries, she figured, wondering for a moment what these men told their wives.
Adjusting her bifocals, Mary Helen watched Rosenberg swagger around the room. A cigarette drooped from the corner of his narrow mouth. Here and there he paused long enough to fondle a black velvet bodice or pat a black velvet bottom.
The nerve of the fellow! Mary Helen thought, wondering for a moment just what else he did. Mary Helen had to resist her schoolmarm urge to tell the fellow to keep his hands to himself. She half wished one of the young waitresses would turn around and give Mr. Boss a good swift kick.
Suddenly she felt Eileen nudge her. “Suzanne,” she said in a stage whisper. Mary Helen slid forward on her chair.
Suzanne appeared on the wooden platform, wreathed in lights and without her glasses. For a moment she blinked uncertainly at the audience. Mary Helen stiffened. Between the spotlights and no glasses she was sure the poor girl couldn’t see a thing.
For heaven’s sake, stay in the middle, she wanted to whisper aloud, so you won’t fall off! Realizing this would be terribly out of order, she simply crossed her fingers instead. The orchestra began a short introduction. Suzanne gripped the microphone. Mary Helen gripped the edge of the table. Suzanne opened her mouth. Mary Helen held her breath. Then, softly, a little hesitantly, Suzanne sang the first few notes of a plaintive melody from a Broadway show.
Mary Helen began to relax during the next few bars when Suzanne’s voice gained volume and certainty. She watched, delighted, as midverse the girl removed her tight grip from the mike and began to gesture, ever so slightly, toward the audience. The gesture wasn’t much, but even a slight gesture was better than no gesture at all, she assured herself. She slid back in her chair. She felt a little swell of pride when Suzanne hit the crescendo in a rich, full voice. The girl seemed to be at ease, and what was more, she seemed to be genuinely feeling the mournful lyrics.
Pleased, Mary Helen glanced around the darkened room to see how the audience was taking to Suzanne. As far as she could tell, the audience was appreciative.
Two or three young fellows, she noticed, moved up in their straight-backed chairs and were quite attentive. Good! In the flickering candlelight she tried to study their profiles, but couldn’t make out anything very clearly. One light-haired fellow at a table several over from them looked about Suzanne’s age. What she could see of his profile seemed handsome enough. Perfect. Maybe he’d be smitten. Love at first sight. How romantic! Just then Mary Helen noticed the young man was already with a girl. Too bad! She scanned the rest of the “moved-up” fellows, but they were really very difficult to appraise in the dimness. Frustrated, her eyes went back to the stage.
As she smiled and sang a final chorus Suzanne’s eyes swept the audience. Good, smile some more, Mary Helen urged silently, even if you can’t see who you’re smiling at! Maybe someone out there will introduce himself afterward. Something might develop and about time too. Imagine, poor Suzanne. Thirty years old and no boyfriends, at least not any that Mary Helen knew about
During the last few bars of the song Mary Helen noticed Suzanne visibly stiffen again. What in the world happened? she wondered, watching a tense expression return to the young woman’s face.
The music ended and the audience began to clap.
“Bravo, bravo.” One young man on the other side of the room rose and began to clap enthusiastically.
Smile, smile, Mary Helen willed. But Suzanne turned away quickly and left the stage.
Oh, blast it, Mary Helen thought as the house lights came up ever so slightly. Won’t that girl ever learn to flirt? Mary Helen stopped. She could not believe she had thought that. Why, she was behaving like a pure … a pure … she could hardly bring herself to admit it, even to herself … like a pure chauvinist! Or would it be sexist? Whichever, she was glad Sister Anne couldn’t read her mind.
The waiters and waitresses resumed their duties. Mary Helen waited for Suzanne to come by the table so she could congratulate her and encourage her to smile more. Whatever the motive, performers should smile, she assured herself. But Suzanne didn’t come.
“Wasn’t she just wonderful?” Eileen asked no one in particular.
Anne and Mary Helen both nodded in agreement.
“Where do you suppose she went?” Mary Helen asked.
“Over there, with the boss.” Anne pointed across the room.
In all that dimness and candlelight it was difficult to see exactly what was going on. Suzanne seemed to be talking rather heatedly to Mr. Rosenberg, who was nodding his head.
I wonder what on earth that was all about, Mary Helen thought, watching Rosenberg move away and start to circle the room.
“Can I get you anything else?” Mary Helen was forced to turn back and look at the waitress. “No, thank you,” she answered quickly, and just as quickly turned away from the waitress and back to watching Rosenberg, who had stopped several tables over. He was leaning forward saying something to the couple at the table. The fellow rose abruptly and headed toward the exit.
“Wait for me, Cluey,” his girlfriend called after him. At least that was what Mary Helen thought she called him. Or was it “Cooy”? It was hard to distinguish above the noise of the crowd.
Standing up, the girl, Mary Helen noticed, looked about sixteen. At least from this distance she looked sixteen. Underage. Could that be what Suzanne was telling Mr. Rosenberg? How did Suzanne notice the couple, if indeed she had? Odd, Mary Helen thought, and what an odd name the fellow had. “Cooy,” or was it “Cluey”? Who would name a child Clue? Only a mystery reader, she thought, which brought her mind scurrying back to the whodunit in her pocketbook.
She hoped she’d get home early enough to read a few chapters tonight. She checked her watch. It was ten o’clock already. She couldn’t believe it!
Just then Mimi came by. “Are you ready to go home?” she asked in a lively bright voice. The three nuns smiled, gathered up their coats from the backs of their chairs. Mary Helen scanned the room once more for Suzanne, but she didn’t see her. She’d call her tomorrow to congratulate her on a wonderful performance.
Mary Helen took what she suspected was her last look around the Sea Wench, made her wish, and dutifully followed Mimi to her parked Honda.
Quickly Mary Helen slipped into her flannel nightgown. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she wound her alarm clock. Tonight had been truly amazing. Timid Suzanne in her wench costume, belting out the blues to a captivated audience. “Belting out the blues” was a bit overdrawn for Suzanne’s performance, but it was probably as close to “belting” as the girl would ever come. Who could have ever imagined? As much as she hated to admit it, maybe her impressions of Suzanne were wrong. Perhaps the young woman’s uneasiness was, indeed, a need for privacy. And that “whipped dog” look. Had she misjudged it? Was Suzanne really just guarded? Even those watery blue eyes: Mary Helen had always noted a hint of toughness in them. Perhaps toughness was the wrong word. Crazily, “unconquerable soul” came to her mind. How did the rest of it go? That was the dickens about getting old. Some days she could only remember parts of things. Some days she couldn’t remember who wrote them and some days even why. She was reluctant to admit the same thing had happened when she was young! “In the fell clutch of circumstances, I have not winced or cried aloud; Under the bludgeoning of chance, My head is bloody, but unbowed.”
“Bloody but unbowed.” That fit Suzanne and her Buick to a tee! Perhaps she should encourage her secretary to pursue her career, branch out, and, as chauvinistic as it seemed, find a gentleman friend. She would urge the girl to make something exciting and interesting of her life. She’d point out her rapport with the audience, how radiant the plain young woman had appeared.
On the other hand, perhaps she should mind her own business, read a little, then try to get some sleep.
Mary Helen climbed into bed, fluffed her pillow, and switched on her electric blanket. Leaning over, she felt on the nightstand for her book. Gone! She remembered she had taken it with her. She rifled her purse. Not there! It must have fallen out in Suzanne’s car or Mimi’s. Good excuse. Better than a phone call. She’d go over to the apartment first thing in the morning, talk to the young woman, and reclaim her mystery.
Copyright © 1986 by Sister Carol Anne O’Marie.