Bernice closed the taxi’s checkered door and waved at the driver. She watched the tail lights disappear around the corner, and fought against holding her breath.
You won’t find out standing here, she chided.
Scooping up her sticker-strewn suitcase she turned from the curb and the lights creating amber circles on asphalt.
She strode up the walkway, noting the lawn looked in need of a trim. The pansies in the town homes’ flower boxes, however, greeted her with perky faces of honey and indigo. Mounting the pair of concrete steps, she stopped on the braided welcome mat, dug into her purse for her key, and unlocked the front door.
Faint music hummed throughout the dimly lit apartment, broken periodically by the thump of the player’s needle bouncing on a scratch in the record. The meditative drone floated on a steadier cloud of patchouli incense undercut with a sweeter smell of Hanna’s personal stock.
Shaking her head at her sister’s bohemian habits, Bernice set down her suitcase, bolted the locks, and unpinned the pill box hat from atop her coiffed brunette twist.
“Bernie?” From the kitchen, Hanna’s voice bobbed upon the thickened air and around a mouthful of something. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” said Bernice. “It’s me.”
Slipping out of her pumps, she headed into the living room illuminated by the one lit lamp and its rusty shade. She cast her hat onto the coffee table strewn with National Geographics and packages of printed photographs. Her quick scan revealed no messages or notes in her sister’s looping script.
Sighing, she sank into the embrace of a plush arm chair and curled up her legs, massaging her throbbing arches through the panty-hose. The knots had begun to relax from her three day shift by the time the hinges on the kitchen’s door groaned.
Hanna glided in among the sweetened aromas, her floral print skirt swaying over her bared legs.
“Cookie?” She offered a half empty plate of rounded chocolate chip confections.
“Why not?” Bernice took one and broke it in half above the plate before nibbling on a corner.
Hanna perched on the armrest and devoured a whole one absently. “How was your trip?”
“It wasn’t a trip, Hanna, its work.”
“You’re flying around right?”
“Yes,” said Bernice. She wiped a morsel of oozing chocolate from the corner of her mouth and sucked it between her lips.
“So how was flying around?”
With a roll of her eyes, Bernice slumped into the chair and propped her feet up on the table. “Fine.” She wiggled her toes, enjoying the freedom of open air. “How are things here?”
“Fine,” said Hanna. She traded the plate for one of the packages of photographs. “I’ve got a new show starting next week.”
Bernie flipped through the images capturing Hanna’s canvas creations. The bright hues seemed muted in the dim light or merely, she reflected, from the weariness in her eyes. She stuffed the photographs back into their pouch and placed them back on the table.
“I put your mail and messages in the basket too,” said Hanna.
She flitted off of the armrest and to the wicker tub. Collecting the basket, she gave the contents a brief shake, the envelopes within rustling.
Bernice fought for a breath. “Anything…interesting?”
Hanna cocked her head and stared into the basket. “I don’t think so, but ever since I stopped opening your mail, I’m not sure.”
“Thanks for the reining in your curiosity.” Holding out her hand, Bernice beckoned for the collection.
“I can do some of the things you ask me to you know.” Hanna handed it over with a smirk. “Don’t you want to worry about that in the morning?”
“It’ll be on my mind,” said Bernice.
No, she amended to herself, he’ll be on your mind.
She started sorting correspondence from junk mail then gasped and held up a bill. Overdue had been stamped on the front in angry red letters.
Hanna took the envelope. “Phone bill?”
“Of course it’s the phone bill.” She snatched back the notice. “Why isn’t it paid? Last month was your month to take care of them.”
Hanna’s innocent façade remained even when Bernice glared. Shaking her head, she slipped her thumb beneath the seal, opened the tab, and retrieved the paperwork. The due date of mid-March stared at her along with a bevy of fine print. She skimmed and got the gist:
We’re cutting service.
The statement sent her stomach dropped through the arm chair’s cushion. “Has the phone been working?”
“I don’t know,” said Hanna. “I don’t get a lot of calls.”
“But I might,” murmured Bernice.
She leaned over and plucked the rose-hued receiver from its cradle. No tone sounded against her ear.
“That’s just perfect,” she said and dumped the receiver back into its bed.
“What does it matter? Not like you’re expecting someone to call when you’re away.”
Bernice closed her eyes and shaded them with one hand while she waited for the light bulb to ignite in Hanna’s clouded mind. Meanwhile she saw Dustin’s face, his dark eyes gleaming over his trimmed beard when he grinned. She recalled the splay of his dress shirt’s crisp collar, the cinch of his tie, the twinkle of the cufflinks at his wrists. Their fingers had kept bumping with each order of white wine, and she remembered wondering if he’d drink them dry to just keep up their conversation.
“You,” said Hanna, her methodical words worming into the vision, “were expecting someone to call.”
“Expect is too strong a word.” Bernice let her hand fall and slid further into the cushions. “Hoped is more like it.”
“Who?!” Hanna’s eyes cleared and she knelt on the ground by the base of the chair like a child waiting for story time.
“One of the passengers on one of my flights. He’d been connecting to Philadelphia but changing airlines in London. We…hit it off and I gave him our number.”
“That doesn’t mean he hasn’t called.”
“Sure, but all he’s going to get is that damn beep bop boop.” She pitched her voice into an electronic tone, “I’m sorry your call cannot be connected as dialed.”
“Oh Bernie, I’m sorry.” Hanna retrieved the plate of cookies and made an offering of the last one. Bernice dragged it from the platter and finished it in three massive chomps.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said after swallowing.
“Sure it does, and there must be something we can do.” Hanna smeared the crumbs around with her finger, as if reading a plan from the remains. Coming to some kind of conclusion, she tossed the plate onto the stack of magazines and drummed on her knees. “What do we know about him?”
“What are you talking about?”
“If he can’t reach you, maybe you can reach him. Yes, yes!” Hanna clapped her hands in applause. “We already know he’s in Philly. Do you know his name?”
“Dustin,” said Bernice.
She watched Hanna bubble and couldn’t help the sudden rise of her own hopes.
“You must have talked or something.”
“Of course we did,” said Bernice, “but mostly about little things. He asked me about flying and I asked him….” She covered her gaping mouth.
“I asked him about what he did. He’s in town for a meeting.” She scrunched her face, closed her eyes, and sought the details. “A banking summit, I think.”
“Where is it?”
“Downtown I’d guess.” Her eyes flung open like a retracted set of blinds. “He’s staying in a hotel downtown.”
“That’s terrible,” said Hanna, with a pout.
Bernice’s elation curbed. “Why?”
“He should be staying here, not in some impersonal skyscraper.”
Hanna’s petulance brought a guttural laugh from Bernice and she flung her arms around her sister.
Hanna returned the hug with tentative arms. “What’s this for? We don’t know where he is yet.”
“I know,” said Bernice. “But I think we will.”
“Because he is in town and I do remember his name.” Releasing her sister, Bernice scootched to the edge of her chair and began counting on her fingers. “All we have to do is call around to the biggest hotels. We ask for him and they’ll tell us if he’s there. Then we can leave a message and….” She gulped and grasped her elbows. “And then….”
“And then you meet for dinner,” said Hanna, mimicking the finger count, “fall madly in love and you’re married by the end of the year.”
“What?” Her sister’s face turned serious. “I’m the creative one right? I’m supposed to think wild and daring thoughts.”
“It’s wild all right.”
“So let’s get started.”
“It’s the middle of the night.”
Hanna batted the notion with both hands. “It’s nine. Plenty of time.” She hefted the phone’s receiver and set her fingers into the four of the rotary dial. “Oh…that’s right.” Chagrinned, she nestled the phone back into the cradle. “Sorry….”
“We can wait until morning.”
“Morning’s going to have him in meetings, meetings with other people’s pretty secretaries, and who knows what’ll happen.” Hanna stood and began pacing along the coffee table. “What we need is a phone. No,” she snapped her fingers. “What we need are quarters.”
She dashed from the living room and stormed up the stairs. A door banged open and above Bernice’s head the floor thudded with Hanna’s jagged steps. Following the stomps, Bernice traced her sister’s route around her bedroom and then watched Hanna traipsing down the steps again, a bright green piggy bank in her hands.
“You don’t need to do that,” said Bernice. “I’m sure I have a few quarters in my purse.”
“This was my fault,” said Hanna. She swept the coffee table clear, the magazines and photographs cascading into pools on the carpet. “I’m going to fix it.”
Hanna rolled the pig onto its back and worked at the cork in its belly. She scowled and frowned, sunk in her nails and then turned the piggy bank around to go at it from the other side. Bernice watched, enraptured by the struggle and what success might mean.
She and Dustin had gotten along so well, better than any of the other passengers who’d flirted with her over the Atlantic. Even Janice and Mable had said so and those prudes usually wanted all the stewardesses to be invisible. He’d even stayed behind while everyone else disembarked, helped her with her uniform’s cape and walked her to the next gate.
The thought of seeing him again outside a terminal or causeway started her heart soaring and her mind swirling on specifics like what’d she’d wear. Bernice looked down at her rumpled uniform, the shade matching her suitcase full of dirtied laundry.
Does he even like blue? she wondered.
Spilling coins tumbled onto the table and shattered her speculation.
“One, two, three,” counted Hanna as she filled her palm with dirtied coins. She cupped over four dollars worth in mere moments and then dumped the money in Bernice’s hands.
“Ralph’s has a payphone,” she said, tugging on Bernice’s elbow, “and the yellow pages.”
Bernice found herself upright and being led toward the door. She had the presence of mind to step into her pumps, much to the disappointment of her arches, and followed Hanna who walked barefoot through the door. She didn’t hear much of Hanna’s babbling during their walk down the sidewalk. Even the clunk of her heels on concrete fell beneath her notice.
Her thoughts churned on what to say, who to call, and what might happen if she didn’t reach him, what might transpire if she did.
Before she reached a verdict, Hanna opened the telephone booth’s door and shoved her inside. Cramming in afterwards, Hanna lifted the phone book and splayed the pages.
“Hotels…hotels….” She flipped the dull yellow sheets, and then pointed her finger at the top of the list. “Where do you want to start?”
“The nicest one I guess,” said Bernice.
“Fairmont? Ritz? Waldorf?”
Bernice lifted the receiver, the black headset shaking in her hand. “Just give me a number,” she whispered and inserted a quarter.
Hanna read off one and the receptionist at the Fairmont answered.
“Um…yes,” said Bernice. She spun on Hanna who shrugged, then waggled her hand at the mouthpiece. “I’m….” Bernice sucked in a quick breath and let out her request in the next exhalation. “I’m looking for someone who I think might be staying with you tonight.”
“Let me see.” The receptionist began to hum while papers shuffled. “We do have a guest staying of that name. Would you like me to connect you?”
“Yes,” whispered Bernice, before biting down on her overeager tongue.
Hold music brushed her ear and Bernice set her hand on the glass wall. Her forehead followed and Ralph’s storefront and the sidewalk outside vanished behind her anxious breath.
Then the yellow book swung into her hollow legs and the phone booth’s door thudded closed.
Wheeling around, she found Hanna grinning on the other side holding two thumbs up.
The phone clicked.
Bernice shut her eyes. “Dustin?”
His presence hung on the other end while in the background glasses clinked and a bass laugh rumbled. Something rubbed against the receiver and when he spoke, Dustin whispered.
She flinched at his hushed tone. “Is this a bad time?”
“No, no. I just can’t believe it’s you.”
Her knees wobbled. “Is that good or bad?”
“Definitely good,” said Dustin. Her imagination provided the smile she heard in his voice, complete with plumped cheeks. “I thought,” he coughed and the phone rubbed against something she now guessed was his chin or cheek. “When I called,” he whispered, “and your number didn’t work I thought you might not have wanted me to reach you.”
“It’s a long story,” said Bernice, “but I promise it was an accident.”
“Maybe you can tell me over dinner.”
“Say tomorrow?” Someone in the background asked him a question and Dustin’s tone gained a professional cast. “8 o’clock, here at the hotel?”
Bernice’s heart leapt up to her throat and she swallowed it back down. “Sounds perfect.”
Bernice held the phone to her ear until the dial tone flat-lined. The weight of the receiver finally pulled her arm down and she set the phone back in its cradle. Behind her, the door squeaked opened allowing in a gust of fresh air. Hanna appeared at her elbow.
“Dinner. Tomorrow at 8.”
Hanna clapped again and then pulled her into a throttling embrace. Bernice leaned into the hug, wary she’d melt without her sister’s support.
“You know what that means,” said Hanna into her shoulder.
Bernice laughed and pulled back, sagging into the booth’s glass wall. “How about bed first?”
“Right,” said Hanna. “You’ll need your beauty sleep.”
Laughing, Bernice let her sister drag her from the booth and looping her arm around her sister’s waist they made their way back home.