Shishir (Winter) 2019, Short Stories - Elaine Barnard



Holy Communion

By Elaine Barnard


“Why are you staring, Sailor?”

I didn’t know I had been. She looked like one of my sister’s dolls, silky black hair caressing slim shoulders. I would like to protect those shoulders. I would like….

As if she were reading my mind she turned away, busying herself with boxes of shoes, stacking and restacking the piles, taller than herself. When she could reach no higher, I picked up the remainder and placed them on top.

“Are there any more, Tsetsuko?” I read her name on the badge she wore. All clerks at the Kobe Army Exchange wore badges. The American military was very careful in Japan. Now it is 1955 but there still lurked the suspicions of WW11.

“I will take care of them,” she said.

I smiled to myself at the thought of this diminutive creature in her elegant floral kimono tackling this empire of shoes.

“I’d like to try on some dress shoes.” I hoped she’d help me and not call that brawny clerk hovering in the next aisle.

“Your navy provides dress shoes.” She started to turn away.

“For when we go on leave, I mean. You know, ride into town maybe.”

“Go to the bars. Pick up girls like the rest of them?”

Which was true, of course, what sailor didn’t? I’d been doing it for five years now. And the girls were so willing. They were waiting when you got off the ship. They smiled, offered to show you around, take you home to their family. I’d done that. When I offered to give them something for their trouble, out of pride, they often refused even though their poverty was obvious, worn down heels and faded dresses, stockings with colorless nail polish to stop the rips. But sometimes they accepted my offer saying

“This will help send my brothers to school.”

“What about yourself?” I’d asked.

“I am a girl, for me it does not matter,” they’d replied, still smiling.

There was something about Tsetsuko that seemed different from these other girls. She had a confidence, a self-possession I hadn’t encountered before.

“Shoes to attend church,” I finally said. “You know, Mass.”

“You are Catholic?”

“I am.”

“I like to attend Mass but the chapel is so far away. And Sunday bus service is unreliable.”

“Perhaps I could pick you up sometime.”

“I would not like to inconvenience you.”

“I’d love to have your company.” I blew dust off some shelves.

“Thank you.”

“I’d be happy to meet you at your home.”

She paused, “I would rather meet you here.”

Before she could change her mind I said quickly, “Okay then, this Sunday if you like, 8 a.m., front gate. I’ll be waiting.”

“Dress shoes?” She called after me as I turned to leave.

“Next time,” I hollered back.

I’d forgotten I needed shoes. Or did I really need them? Anyway it was an excuse to return. And return I did each day of that week. I guess I was trying to make sure she meant what she’d said, meant to keep her promise. But she paid no attention to me. When I tried to buy her coffee on her break, she refused. “No thank you. Water is enough. Besides I’d like to finish this book. It’s the only time I have.”

I was interrupting her reading but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to help it.

Sunday morning she stood at the entrance to the base but she wasn’t alone. A kid about three years of age held her hand. What? She never mentioned—

“This is my son, Dai.” He buried his face against her.

“You-you didn’t tell me…”

“I thought you might not take me if you knew. It is difficult to be on time for Mass without a car. When the weather is bad the buses are often late. And Dai is not a patient child.

“Most kids hate waiting around. I don’t blame them. Here, climb in.” I held the door for them.

“We will sit in back”

“Hell no, sit up front beside me.”

“I think it best we be in back.” She snuggled Dai against her.

We drove up some washed out roads to a small wooden chapel standing alone amid a pile of debris.

“There used to be a high school here, the Sacred Heart. I attended during the big war. Later it was…was bombed out.

I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing as Dai ran circles around us.

“We erected this chapel here. It is dedicated to the memory of my teacher, Sister Marie Adele. She…she died in the bombing.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It is not your fault. You were not here then.”

No, I was at home in New Jersey, I thought, sitting in art class, bored out of my mind even though art was my best subject. Suddenly, sitting there seemed stupid when, like all my sailor uncles, I could be seeing the world instead of just imagining it on paper. They’d told me tales of the strange women they’d met, beautiful, mysterious, and there for the taking. How could I resist? So I got a pass to use the bathroom but instead got on the nearest bus and headed for navy recruiting in Philadelphia. I’d just turned eighteen so there was no problem. In fact, they didn’t even ask for identification but gave me a bus token when I completed their paper work. Off I went to the navy base in Bainbridge, Maryland. I was a sailor.

Dai started to fuss as we entered the chapel. Tsetsuko picked him up, nestling him against her breast.

“Here,” I whispered when he didn’t stop whining. “Let me take him outside. Maybe he needs to run. That was a long car ride.”

She hesitated but then as Dai’s yowling increased she let me have him. He was screaming now, kicking my chest. “Hey slugger, knock it off.”

He looked at me somewhat startled. Shoving his thumb in his mouth, he was suddenly quiet. We settled on a bench beside a fountain. The rush of water soothed us.

Sister Marie Adele blessed us from her pinnacle above the fountain. Little Dai fell asleep in my arms. There was something calming about this, about having Dai, his warm head against me, his slight breath on my neck. I’d never felt this before, this peace, as if all the crazy years of wondering who the hell I was had vanished and only Dai and I, in this moment, mattered.

A tap on my shoulder. When I opened my eyes she was standing there. “Mass is over. You will have to make it up somehow.”

“I will next Sunday if you’ll come with me.”

“And Dai?”

What was I getting myself into? All this “and Dai” stuff. I wasn’t the kid’s father. Where the hell was he? Will he show up some night with a machete? The military police had warned us....

We got into the car. Dai wanted to sit up front beside me so his mom agreed. I got this warm feeling again, sort of happy like, content. I could drive forever with them next to me. “I’ll drop you at your place if you like.” I was hoping she’d say yes; maybe invite me in for green tea.

“No, thank you. I think buses still running. You can let us off at the base.”

“You sure? Dai there might wake up. This chill won’t make him happy. I’d hate to see him catch a cold.”

“He will be all right. He is sturdy.” She kissed his head as he stirred.

Here, give him this.” I searched for the Wrigley Chiclets I’d left in my pocket.

“You are kind,” an unexpected smile crossed her face when I let them off at the base.

un was just breaking through the clouds. Its heat penetrated. Something strange had happened to me. I couldn’t explain it but suddenly the only thing I wanted in this life was to stand here with this woman and her child as if they were my own. So I didn’t drive off but decided to wait, make sure they were okay. I parked the car and joined them.

“You need not wait with us. The bus will soon be here.”

“I prefer to wait.” I picked up Dai who was happily chewing the Chiclets.

“He likes them,” she smoothed his hair.

“I have more where those came from.”

She focused on the distance. “It will come shortly.”

But the bus did not come. A wind rose from nowhere blowing her white sun hat into the gutter. I shifted Dai into her arms and ran after it. It kept escaping my grasp. Finally I caught it just before it rolled into a ditch.

“Got it.” I placed it carefully on her head. Her hair was still a glossy halo, even the wind hadn’t disturbed its neat arrangement.

“Thank you,” she murmured as my fingers lingered for a moment tying the ribbons beneath her chin.

Dai whimpered as the wind whipped around us. “Bus-bus—“he cried.

“Would you mind driving us? Dai is getting difficult.”

Just what I was hoping for. I hurried them into my car and turned on the heater full blast. “Better?”

Dai grinned his baby grin as his mom rocked him. “I give you directions,” she said.

“I love taking orders.”

We swung back into the sparse traffic. It was Sunday, not many folks about this early. Up one lane of wooden houses and down another. Some had no street names. If she wasn’t with me I’d have been lost indeed.

“I must apologize for my garden,” she murmured as we faced a lot full of weeds. “My mother raised cabbages here and sweet potatoes but I have not the energy. It is usually dark when I return from the PX, too late for gardening. Maybe someday….”

“You just need a helping hand.” Hoping she’d take the hint, I pulled a few weeds.

“It looks better already.”

“You have no idea what I can do.”

Dai started hopping toward the house.

“We must go in or he will wet his pants. I have just gotten him toilet trained. Thank you again.” She carried his tiny wriggling body up the rutted pathway.

“No problem. Maybe next—“

But she was gone. And I was gone too. I stood there staring after her shadow, delicate as the wisteria she was named for. No hope for me now. I started the motor as a light rain began to fall muting the landscape into grays and pale browns reminiscent of the silk screens I’d seen in Tokyo. All this seemed somehow unreal, as if I were simply a character on a Japanese scroll, part of a life I didn’t know existed. Tsetsuko and Dai, the warmth that must exist inside those fragile walls so different from the cold, silent household I’d grown up in. My father, a steel worker, so exhausted at night he rarely uttered a word to us, my mother an immigrant housewife from Yugoslavia who hardly spoke English. Was there a place for me beside Tsetsuko? Only one hope, I thought, as I drove the muddy roads back to the base, only one plan that might succeed.

The next evening I returned to her house, my car loaded with toys. If Dai didn’t like one I could produce another. I’d probably spoil the kid rotten but that was my plan.

It was just getting dark when I knocked. Silence inside so I knocked again.

Tsetsuko opened the door. “Did you come to see me?”

No,” I lied, “I came to see Dai.”

“He is asleep now.”

“Okay, give him this. Tell him his buddy left brown bear for him.”

She bowed her head. “He loves animals. But you should not—“

I didn’t wait. Turning, I headed for my car and started the motor. She stood in her doorway still looking confused.

I waited a few days, then I returned a bit earlier hoping Dai might be awake. As I drove up, I noticed Tsetsuko peering from a window. She opened the door after my first knock.

“You came to see me?”

“No,” I lied again, “to see Dai. Is he awake?”

“I just put him down. But he is not asleep yet.”

“I don’t want to disturb him. Tell him his bro left this.” I uncovered the toy tiger I’d hidden in my jacket, similar to the imaginary one I’d seen in a painting by Jakuchu, the eighteenth century master of the Edo period.

She laughed, “There are no tigers in Japan.”

“I know. That’s why I thought he’d like this.”

She looked at me quizzically. “You are so—“
"My pleasure,” I quipped and hurried away.

The next Sunday morning I knocked again. It was 9 a.m. Dai peeked through the crack in the door, then ran into me hugging my legs. “Buddy-Bud-Bud,” he cooed.

“Yes,” I laughed, picking him up.

“Dai…Dai,” Tsetsuko called from within. “Come back here.”

But Dai paid no attention. “Toy-toy,” he cried.

I grabbed a small monkey from my pack. “Here you go kiddo. This guy hangs out in the mountains.”

Dai pet the soft brown fur, then grinned in imitation.

Tsetsuko waved hesitantly. Ready for church, she wore a dress of yellow sunflowers and patent leather heels which did little to increase her height.

“I went by the bus stop and waited. When you didn’t show I figured maybe you needed a ride.”

“Dai overslept this morning so I thought we would make late Mass.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“You are so considerate, not like the others. And Dai…”

I couldn’t shake the kid off. He clung to me like I was his dad or something. And I didn’t really want to shake him off. I think he knew it. I picked him up, laid him down in the back seat of my car and tucked the monkey into his arms.

Taking her hand, I helped Tsetsuko into the front seat. Her fingers lingered in mine for a moment as if they were meant to be there. “Let’s get started,” I whispered. “We don’t want to miss Holy Communion.”


Elaine Barnard is the author of four novels, and several plays. Her short stories have won awards and been published in numerous literary journals such as Anak Sastra, Lowestoft Chronicle, Apple Valley, Kyso, carte blanche, Southword and many others. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train and Best of the Net. Recently she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction. Her collection of short stories from her travels in Asia, Emperor of Nuts: Intersections Across Cultures is forthcoming from New Meridian Arts. She received Writers Residency awards from Dorland Mountain, Temecula, CA, Ossabaw Island, Savannah, GA, Millay Colony, New York, N Y, Wurlitzer Colony, Taos, NM, Creekwood Colony, Alabama. She received her BA from the University of Washington, Seattle and her MFA from the University of California, Irvine.


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